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New container slots, pop-up storage help Savannah navigate rising dwells

There were as many as 30 vessels anchored outside Savannah last September; now vessels may have a short wait to get into the harbor. Photo credit: Jeremy Polston/Georgia Ports Authority.

Import container dwells are climbing at the Port of Savannah, but the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) says new pop-up storage sites should maintain cargo fluidity and avoid the congestion seen last fall when as many as 30 vessels were anchored outside the port.

The port is concerned that shippers are taking longer to pick up cargo after several months of declining dwell times, but it has been able to absorb the longer dwells better than last September. The backlog that developed last fall is now completely cleared.

“Thank God we have the pop-up yards because import dwells are going back toward 10 days again, which is a no-go zone for us,” GPA CEO Griff Lynch told JOC.com.

Lynch said the pop-up storage sites in Atlanta, Chatsworth, Statesboro, and Savannah have been critical to shuttling long-dwelling cargo out of the Garden City Terminal. And containers began flowing last week to a new pop-up yard in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, established with CSX Transportation.

GPA is discussing adding a sixth pop-up storage site with Norfolk Southern Railway outside of Georgia.

Lynch also credited GPA’s so-called “Peak Capacity Project,” which will add 20,000 new container slots to the Garden City Terminal by June, for eliminating the queue of vessels off Savannah. The new slots represent a nearly 25 percent increase in terminal capacity.

Five thousand container slots have been opened so far, and another 5,000 will become available between Feb. 14 and March 2.

More cranes to work vessels faster

Lynch said vessel bunching will be less likely in the future because Savannah is beginning to use more cranes per vessel through a joint venture to consolidate the stevedoring services of Ceres Marine Terminals, Ports America, and SSA Atlantic. The newly simplified stevedoring services allowed the port to assign eight cranes on a Hapag-Lloyd vessel last week instead of the usual five.

Lynch said six to eight cranes will be the norm in the future, especially as Savannah increases from 30 to 38 ship-to-shore cranes by the end of 2023 and the 20,000 new container slots are opened.

“What that leads to is more moves per hour, which allows us to clear that ship out of Savannah earlier and be ready for the next big ship sooner,” he said. “Hopefully that translates to less time [for vessels] at anchor. That’s going to benefit the ocean carriers, it’s going to benefit the ILA because they will be able to work more moves, and it will benefit our [beneficial cargo owners]. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Growing volumes judiciously

Lynch said the GPA will be very sensitive about what new business it will accept in 2022 to prevent a repeat of last autumn. It will not accept every new service seeking to add Savannah to a weekly string, he said.

“We want to keep the number of ships at anchor in check, and we understand that could change if we would blindly say yes to everybody,” Lynch acknowledged. “We’re looking for the right partners and the right cargo. We will phase in receiving more vessels but do everything in our power not to have 10-plus vessels anchored. We can’t promise it, but we’re going to do things differently because we’ve learned a lot of lessons.”

He said if there isn’t a good match, then the port will say “no, we can’t do it even at the risk of ships having to go to other ports.” For example, GPA may reject diverted vessels from other ports because the additional ships would reduce drayage capacity for local drays to Savannah-based BCOs.

“If someone wants to divert a ship from Charleston to Savannah, but it’s got Charleston cargo on it, we don’t want to take that,” Lynch said. “All that’s going to do is mess up the end customer — the BCO — because they won’t be able to get the drayage power from Charleston back to Savannah. Ocean carriers made that mistake, and they’ve made it several times in different regions.”