Exclusive: Talmadge Bridge to be replaced. The price? Up to $2 billion

Existing span considered an obstacle to growth at Port of Savannah as some ships are too big to pass underneath
A cargo ship on the Savannah River passes under the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge on its way to the Port of Savannah. AJC file

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

A cargo ship on the Savannah River passes under the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge on its way to the Port of Savannah. AJC file

SAVANNAH — The Talmadge Bridge, a defining feature of Savannah’s skyline since it opened more than 30 years ago, towers above the historic buildings and luxury hotels along the riverfront.

Driving over the 1.9-mile-long span along its steeply inclined roadway is enough to induce vertigo in those with a fear of heights.

Yet the cable-stayed bridge is considered low — too low — by officials at the neighboring Port of Savannah.

An increasing number of mammoth container ships, carrying towering stacks of Lego-colored cargo boxes atop their decks, must make allowances for the bridge’s 185-foot clearance, also known as airdraft. Some must time their passage with the tides, while others must manipulate their port-to-port itineraries to ensure fewer cargo boxes on deck when visiting Savannah. And some — including two in recent years — must use other ports altogether.

To fix the the bridge’s literal shortcomings, the Georgia Department of Transportation this week launched a $179 million maintenance project officials hope will add up to 20 feet of clearance. The move is a precursor to a bridge replacement plan that involves either building one of the world’s tallest bridges at a cost of $1.17 billion or digging a $2 billion tunnel beneath the Savannah River.

Pedestrians watch from River Street as a cargo ship leaves the Port of Savannah heading toward the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. Bloomberg photo by Ty Wright

Credit: Bloomberg

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Credit: Bloomberg

The proposals are part of a GDOT feasibility study reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looking at long-term solutions. Ports Authority officials first voiced concerns about the existing bridge in 2018, but the timeline for constructing a new bridge or a tunnel is open-ended, with no funding sources yet identified.

“The ultimate solution for the Talmadge bridge will be very costly; there will be a ‘B’ behind whatever the first number is,” GDOT commissioner Russell McMurry said in an interview with the AJC.

The temporary fix begins Wednesday with the awarding of a maintenance contract to replace the bridge’s suspension cables. As part of that process, crews will elevate the roadway at its center section in a move McMurry calls a “step that can buy some time” as officials consider the 10-figure improvements.

Engineers estimate the stopgap, slated for completion in 2028, will provide between 10 and 20 feet of additional airdraft, and increase the Port of Savannah’s competitiveness with East Coast port rivals.

Assuming the elevation improvement meets the 20-foot target, which McMurry describes as “doable,” the Talmadge would rival the clearance of the 215-foot Bayonne Bridge near the Port of New York/New Jersey, currently the only East Coast port handling more containers than Savannah.

Elevating the Talmadge to 205 feet would allow the largest ships calling on the East Coast today access to the Port of Savannah and postpone the need for another solution for a “long time” as shipping companies add the larger vessels at a slow pace, Ports Authority CEO Griff Lynch said. Savannah’s North American container market share, now at 11%, is projected to grow as the port doubles its container capacity over the next seven years. Savannah set a record for container traffic in Fiscal Year 2022; Fiscal Year 2023 was the second busiest year in port history.

The Port of Savannah and other ports authority facilities already support 561,000 jobs and contribute $59 billion annually to the state’s gross domestic product, according to a study by the University of Georgia.

The predicted uptick in container volume is why the Port of Savannah is undergoing a nearly $2 billion renovation and expansion plan that includes a reconfiguration of the docks at the Garden City Terminal, a transformation of the Ocean Terminal from a vehicle and bulk cargo point to one that handles only containers, and the construction of a third terminal across the Savannah River from the Ocean Terminal.

Port Authority officials are also seeking a study to dredge the Savannah River to allow access for larger ships. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a previous deepening project in early 2022.

Port Authority officials view the bridge — at the roadway’s current height — as one more obstacle to growth.

“At the end of the day, though, the bridge has to be raised enough to make a difference,” Lynch said. “Or replaced.”

Ambitious plans for future

That’s why GDOT continues to pursue the plan to remove the Talmadge Bridge and replace it with a higher span or a tunnel.

The feasibility study, which GDOT officials called a “working document” likely to see revisions, explored 27 alternatives and recommended two: a new, 230-foot-high bridge built next to the existing span, or a two-tube tunnel bored at least 109 feet underground in the same vicinity as the Talmadge Bridge.

The new bridge would match the clearance of Egypt’s Al Salam Bridge, which spans the Suez Canal and has the highest airdraft of any bridge in the world built on flat land.

In the tunnel plan, each of the two tunnel tubes would carry two lanes of traffic and would be built 50 feet below the bottom of the river channel and nearly 100 feet above the top of the Floridan aquifer, a major source of drinking water for 10 million people.

The Port of Savannah was the first container terminal in the Southeast or Gulf Coast to move 5 million twenty-foot equivalent container units in a fiscal year. (Jeremy Polston/Georgia Ports Authority)

Credit: Courtesy of Georgia Ports Authority

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Credit: Courtesy of Georgia Ports Authority

McMurry said GDOT has yet to settle on a preferred option. However, he noted that when the Talmadge Bridge opened in 1991, he never envisioned a “need for a taller bridge.”

The bridge was designed at a time when the largest cargo ships carried less than half that of freighters visiting the Port of Savannah today — and one-third of the cargo capacity of the world’s largest vessels. Ships keep getting bigger, he said.

Asked if he was hinting at a tunnel as the solution, McMurry said, “I can’t say that today. We still have work to do.”

Officials will study the two options as crews work to elevate the Talmadge Bridge roadway through the cable replacement project. That work is to begin in mid-2025 and will take an estimated 30 to 36 months to complete.

The goal is to be “prepared to move” on replacing the bridge once it is deemed necessary and not lose years in studies and planning, McMurry said.

“The ports are always looking to the future,” McMurry said. “We owe it to them, as partners, to think that way too.”

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