SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Calling it a “once in a generation milestone,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday touted completion of a $973 million expansion of the shipping channel linking the Port of Savannah to the Atlantic Ocean as an accomplishment that will deliver a lasting boost to commerce in the state.
Work to deepen 40 miles (64 kilometers) along the Savannah River to make room for larger cargo ships wrapped up earlier this month, 6 1/2 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 served as Georgia's governor.
“To say that today has been 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 ships along the port's docks. “This is 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 for cargo 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 whopping 20% increase in cargo volumes over 2020.
The dredging of mud and sediment from the river bottom got underway in 2015 as Savannah and other U.S. ports raced for deeper water to accommodate bigger ships arriving along the East Coast through an expanded Panama Canal.
Overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers and funded jointly by the federal government and the state, the harbor expansion added 5 feet (1.5 meters) of depth to the Savannah River shipping channel. That allows larger ships carrying heavier loads to come and go without waiting for higher tides.
“Deeper water means that ships can carry up to an additional 1,000 extra containers,” said Joel Wooten, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority's board of directors. “It’s important to the importers, it’s also important to Georgia exporters. It will mean greater speed and greater efficiency getting Georgia grown and Georgia manufactured goods to global markets.”
The harbor expansion was not just about dredging. The government spent $14 million salvaging the sunken remains of the ironclad Confederate gunship CSS Georgia, which had been scuttled in the river during the Civil War. Another $100 million went to installing large machines that inject extra oxygen into the river to help blue crabs, striped bass and endangered shortnose sturgeon breathe. They were part of a legal settlement to offset environmental damage caused by the project.
Georgia port officials are planning aggressively for more growth. Griff Lynch, the port authority's executive director, announced last month plans to increase Savannah’s capacity for cargo containers by 58% over the next three years.
Lynch said the shipping channel's new depth of 47 feet (14 meters) should last a long while. But he's warned that even larger ships coming online within the next decade may not fit underneath 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.