The weekend before St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah, Ga., is a bit like the week before Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The city is in a party mood, bagpipers and bikers ratchet up the decibel level in preparation for one of the biggest celebrations of Irish heritage in the country.
But while the city prepares for the big party, the port is also getting ready to make some major changes to the Savannah River in anticipation of bigger ships from Asia. The Port of Savannah is the fastest growing container port in the country, handling 18 percent of all East Coast container traffic in 2010. The Georgia Ports Authority is seeking federal funding to complete an aggressive expansion. The Savannah Harbor Expansion Plan calls for deepening 38 miles of the river to 48′ in order to accommodate the new post-Panamax ships that will begin using the expanded Panama Canal in 2014-2015.
GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz calls SHEP “one of the most important and productive civil works projects in the country.” The GPA says it is imperative that the project begins soon and they are scrambling to secure funding.
However, environmental groups and fiscal conservatives are saying “not so fast!” A new website, www.portbarrel.org, is broadcasting a message of “better choices for our tax dollars and the environment.”
My industry sources here in Savannah say the harbor deepening is not necessarily an economic no-brainer. For one thing, bigger ships mean fewer ship calls and less work for tugs and pilots. Also the danger of saltwater intrusion into the aquifer is a real concern to Savannah where this low country has previously suffered the effects from dredging. Lastly, China has signed a deal with Columbia to build a rail system from the Atlantic to the Pacific and bypass the steep Panama Canal tariffs. My source predicts that would enable a network of small feeder ships to shuttle back and forth. Talk about throwing a wrench into the debate!
Pass me a Guinness. It has become too complicated.