Savannah’s port files plans for huge expansion. This time on an island

Permit application for third terminal project, first announced in 2019, indicates operations to begin on Hutchinson Island in 2030
FILE — Shipping containers at the Port of Savannah, in Garden City, Ga., Sept. 29, 2021. Some major retailers are turning towards East Coast ports like this one to avoid potential upheaval at West Coast ports during new contract negotiations for their dockworkers. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

FILE — Shipping containers at the Port of Savannah, in Garden City, Ga., Sept. 29, 2021. Some major retailers are turning towards East Coast ports like this one to avoid potential upheaval at West Coast ports during new contract negotiations for their dockworkers. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

SAVANNAH — The Port of Savannah is poised to grow again, with a 395-acre cargo container terminal planned for an island in the middle of the Savannah River.

The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) recently submitted a permitting application for the terminal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The facility is to be built on land the authority owns in the shadow of Savannah’s Talmadge Bridge on Hutchinson Island, a 2,000-acre isle that prior in the 1990s was a CSX railroad-owned wildland.

Today, Hutchinson Island is home to the Savannah Convention Center, a Westin hotel resort and golf course, a fledgling luxury housing community and a still-under-construction mixed-use development and marina. The ports authority plans to build three berths for freighters to dock on a swath of land upriver from the convention center and hotel.

The proposal follows overhauls of the ports authority’s Garden City and Ocean terminals and decades-long deepening of the harbor that now allows larger classes of cargo ships to ply the waters of the Savannah River.

Global trade is a growing part of the Georgia economy, touching every corner of the state. A 2022 report by the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business commissioned by the authority concluded that the state’s deep-water ports in Savannah and Brunswick support 561,000 jobs across the state.

According to the permit, the GPA intends to begin construction on the cargo facility in 2026 in anticipation of a 2030 opening. The new terminal, the third in a complex that has grown into the nation’s third-busiest port, will increase the Port of Savannah’s capacity by 3 million containers annually.

The Hutchinson Island Terminal “will allow GPA to meet future demands for container volumes, to grow with the growing economy, and to accommodate the changing trends to transportation and shipment of goods across the Southeast,” wrote Christopher Novack, GPA’s director of Engineering and Facilities Maintenance, in the permit application.

The document, dated Sept. 1, provides the first details of a terminal announced in 2019 by ports authority President and CEO Griff Lynch. At the time, Lynch said ports officials were eyeing a 200-acre facility that would come online as early as 2025.

The Hutchinson project was to follow improvements to the Garden City Terminal, the Port of Savannah’s largest facility. That work included demolition and reconstruction of Garden City’s Container Berth 1, which can now simultaneously serve four of the largest ships that call on Savannah as well as three smaller ships. The berth reopened in July and boosted the port’s capacity by 1.5 million containers annually.

The board of the Georgia Ports Authority on Monday approved a plan to renovate docks at its Ocean Terminal in Savannah to handle more container traffic, creating flexibility to grow over the next several years.


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A COVID-19 pandemic-related crush of business led the GPA to prioritize another Port of Savannah project, a renovation to Ocean Terminal, ahead of Hutchinson Island. The Ocean Terminal facility abuts downtown Savannah and the city’s iconic River Street and has long handled roll-on, roll-off cargo such as cars and heavy equipment as well as “breakbulk cargo,” or goods that do not fit in shipping containers.

GPA is shifting the roll-on, roll-off and breakbulk business to the Port of Brunswick and will transform Ocean Terminal into a container port. In the year prior to the pandemic, Ocean Terminal handled less than 3,000 containers. Upon completion in 2025, the facility will have the ability to move 2 million containers annually, boosting the Port of Savannah’s overall capacity to 9.5 million containers.

GPA officials say they need the volume at Ocean Terminal to maintain a 20% cushion on projected container traffic through 2030. Likewise, the Hutchinson Terminal is necessary to accommodate demand growth through 2035. The GPA projects handling 10 million containers a year by 2035.

“Maintaining a 20% cushion provides operational flexibility on-terminal making everything run efficiently through the peaks and valleys of the shipping season,” Novack wrote in the permit application.

Lynch said following the GPA Board of Directors meeting in September it was time “to move forward” on the Hutchinson Island project. The 65-page permit application includes details from a study of the terminal, including alternative sites. Two of the others were deemed too small for a new terminal and a third encroached on the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

Ports officials also cited Hutchinson’s favorable location in terms of traffic and rail. The site connects directly to U.S. 17 and Interstate 16, and both routes are currently being widened. The South Carolina Department of Transportation has initiated planning for a parkway that will connect U.S. 17 to a new interchange on Interstate 95, giving ports traffic access to the busy travel corridor in three different locations.

As for rail, Hutchinson is home to a decommissioned CSX line, and the permit application mentions working with the railroad to restore freight service on the tracks.

One potential alternative terminal site the review did not consider is the property reserved for a long-planned facility known as the Jasper Ocean Terminal, a joint project of the GPA and the South Carolina Ports Authority.

The Jasper site is located along the Savannah River downstream from the current port and the city’s downtown. The property is in South Carolina and remains part of the GPA’s future plans, Lynch said, with forecasts that shipping demand in Savannah could reach 20 million containers by 2050.

The Hutchinson Island Terminal will boost Savannah’s capacity to 12.5 million containers.

The GPA has been purchasing property for the Hutchinson Island Terminal over the last several years. Those transactions included buying the Savannah Economic Development Authority headquarters office building to the east of the Talmadge Bridge and other properties that neighbor the Savannah Convention Center.

Those parcels, located directly across from the River Street entertainment district and a short distance from the convention center, will be used for office services and parking, the terminal plans show. The container ship berths and the majority of the container storage yards will be located west of the bridge across from Ocean Terminal.

Lynch is expected to discuss the Hutchinson Island Terminal as part of GPA’s other future plans during the 2023 State of the Ports event Oct. 12 at the Savannah Convention Center.