Ga. gov applauds completion of Port of Savannah expansion

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Calling it a “once-in-a-generation milestone,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday touted the completion of a $973 million project. expansion of the shipping channel connecting the Port of Savannah to the Atlantic Ocean as an achievement that will provide a lasting boost to commerce in the state.

40-mile (64-kilometre) deepening works along the Savannah River to make room for larger freighters completed earlier this month, 6½ years after dredging began. But the project began much earlier with feasibility studies that began in 1997, when Bill Clinton was president and Zell Miller was governor of Georgia.

“To say today was a long time coming is an understatement,” Kemp told about 50 people gathered on the Savannah waterfront a few miles downriver from where towering cranes load and unload cargo. ships along the harbor quays. “It’s a day that all Georgians should be proud of, no matter who they are, where they work or how they vote.”

The Port of Savannah is the nation’s fourth-busiest port for goods shipped in containers, large metal boxes used to transport goods ranging from consumer electronics to frozen chickens. The port handled a record 5.6 million container units last year, a huge 20% increase in freight volumes compared to 2020.

Dredging of mud and sediment from the bottom of the river began in 2015 as Savannah and other U.S. ports rushed to deeper waters to accommodate larger ships arriving along the east coast through a channel of Expanded Panama.

Overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers and jointly funded by the federal and state governments, the port expansion added 5 feet (1.5 meters) of depth to the Savannah River shipping channel. This allows larger vessels carrying heavier loads to come and go without waiting for high tides.

“Deeper water means ships can carry up to 1,000 more containers,” said Joel Wooten, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority board. “It’s important for importers, it’s also important for Georgian exporters. This will result in greater speed and efficiency in bringing Georgia grown and Georgian manufactured goods to world markets.

Port expansion was not just a matter of dredging. The government has spent $14 million to salvage the sunken remains of the ironclad Confederate gunship CSS Georgia, which had been scuttled in the river during the Civil War. An additional $100 million was spent on installing big machines which inject extra oxygen into the river to help endangered blue crabs, striped bass and shortnose sturgeon breathe. They were part of a legal settlement to compensate for the environmental damage caused by the project.

Georgia Port officials are aggressively planning for more growth. Griff Lynch, the Port Authority’s chief executive, last month announced plans to to augment Savannah’s capacity for freight containers by 58% over the next three years.

Lynch said the new shipping channel depth of 47 feet (14 meters) should last a long time. But he warned that even larger ships that come online in the next decade may not pass under the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge that spans the river between the port and downtown Savannah.

Lynch said the state Department of Transportation is studying whether to raise or replace the large suspension bridge built in 1991. He said he expects a report later this year.

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