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New rail system part of plans to alleviate backlog at the Savannah port

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 5:04 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 12, 2021 at 6:13 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s a project many years in the making with even more urgency lately.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Friday for the Mason Mega Rail at the Savannah Ports. A project that started in 2017.

The Mason Mega Rail Terminal includes 18 tracks total. The expansion immediately increases intermodal capacity to and from the Port of Savannah by more than 30 percent.

Port leaders were joined by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp during the ribbon cutting ceremony.

“The 85-acre well yard is the largest of its kind for a port terminal in North America. It will allow the Port of Savannah to build and receive six 10,000 foot long trains at the same time. In other words, there’s nothing else like this in United States. This means an immediate 30 percent increase in capacity,” Gov. Kemp said.

The timing of the mega rail project is supposed to help alleviate some of the unprecedented port congestion. That backup is also affecting truck drivers locally.

A month ago, WTOC saw first-hand how many ships were anchored at sea waiting to unload at the Port of Savannah. On that day, there were 24 ships anchored - almost all of them container ships. Some had been waiting for days.

Master Pilot Trey Thompson, with Savannah Bar Pilots, has been in the business 30 years, and explained last month how the backlog at the ports has slowed business for the bar pilots.

“From our end, we’ve slowed down because they’re taking longer at the dock to unload. They’re bigger ships carrying more containers, so they take longer to unload and load. So, we’ve slowed down in actually moving ships back and forth,” Thompson said.

Thompson went on to say the most ships he’s seen anchored at sea is 38 ships. That happened about six weeks ago. This week the number of ships anchored at sea dropped to as few as 14, said Griff Lynch, Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director.

But as of Friday, Nov. 1, there were 27 ships anchored at sea, according to marinetraffic.com.

Some perspective to what we’re seeing right now: Under normal trade conditions, the master bar pilot says there would only be one or two ships waiting at sea.

Georgia Ports’ plan to clear congestion

There is another project in the works to help make that happen and alleviate the supply chain problems.

The port is working to establish eight pop-up container yards in locations in Georgia and North Carolina. That will allow the Port of Savannah to move containers from here to those strategic locations and create more space at the port, then offload the ships waiting at sea.

It’s a project that the port has been working on for the past six months.

Some of which will be paid for using $8 million in reallocated funds authorized by the Biden Administration.

“So, instead of a truck driver having to travel 220 miles one way and 220 miles another way. This new facility will be 35 to 40, 50 miles from their facility. This is a big win,” Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch said.

Three pop-up sites are expected to open within the next few weeks. The rest by the end of the year.

Lynch said the ports asked the White House to be able to use $24 million toward this project but is appreciative of the $8 million that will go toward it.

Once those pop-up locations are open, the port expects it to help reduce the number of ships anchored at sea waiting to offload containers at the port.

Clogged port frustrates truck drivers

Earl Williams gets paid to move cargo, but says a lot of the time, he just sits and waits at the port of Savannah.

“I prefer not to have to even go in the port because the majority of my day will be spent in the port getting nothing done,” Williams said.

But on days like today Williams starts there, with no control over the first few hours of his shift.

“My experience at the Port of Savannah there’s no in and out, there’s no in and out. You’re at the mercy of the port. You go in, and you get it when you get it,” he said.

He says it affects different aspects of his job, like where he can bring the container.

“Merchandise has to be going 10 hours away from here, you spend three or four hours at the port most of your driving time is wasted sitting around the port,” Williams said.

The wait is also keeping drivers from making money.

“Many drivers that aren’t paid by the hour, you’re getting paid by, you know, what you do. If you can’t run in there and run right back out with something in the course of a day, you’re not going to make any money,” Williams said.

Which is obviously important.

“At the end of the day it’s all about money. I don’t get up and get in this truck because I like driving trucks,” Williams said.

At this stop, Williams says he spent over $300 on the gas. He said that almost wipes out his wages for the day. But through it all, he continues driving

Hoping for change to come soon.

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