For the Georgia Ports Authority, the best piece of news for 2012 came in October when U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy signed off on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
That apparently simple action propelled the 15-year effort to deepen the Savannah River channel from the hoping, planning and seemingly endless study phase toward the long-awaited reality of mitigation, contract letting and — finally — digging.
Darcy’s “Record of Decision” confirms that the proposed plan is in the nation’s best interest and allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which began studying the project’s feasibility in 1999 at the direction of Congress, to move forward with construction.
Under the project, the Corps of Engineers will deepen the Savannah River channel from 42 to 47 feet, allowing larger and more heavily loaded container vessels to call on the port with fewer tidal delays.
“We are absolutely ready to get started,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, the project’s local sponsor.
The next issue is how to pay for the estimated $652 million project.
Gov. Nathan Deal said in November he will seek an additional $50 million in bonds to deepen the harbor, which would increase committed state funding to just more than $231 million.
“Georgia is ready and able to pay its share of the cost,” Deal said. “For every $1 we invest, we get back $5.50 in economic benefits. Taxpayers will receive a handsome return on this project.”
As for the federal portion, having a record of decision will allow that to be addressed in the upcoming 2014 budget proposal, coming after the first of the year.
It can’t hurt at this point that Savannah’s harbor deepening is one of a handful of infrastructure projects designated “nationally and regionally significant” by the Obama Administration and slated for fast-track completion.
One of the first orders of business, Foltz said, is working through some of the detailed agreements that will need to be in place, including obtaining congressional approval for an increase in the project cost, which was set at $230 million in 1999.
“Our delegates in Washington are working now on getting the proper spending limits set,” Foltz said, adding that he did not expect that to be a problem.
“As with any project, Congress is looking at return on investment,” he said. “The benefit-to-cost ratio of this project makes it very valuable.”
Actual digging is expected to begin mid-year 2013 under provisions that allow the Corps to use state funds while awaiting Congress to provide the federal share.
Based on the amount of money to be spent during the construction phase of the project, the Corps has calculated that more than 11,000 yearlong jobs will be created nationwide for each year of construction.
“Of these, there will be more than 3,700 bi-state jobs — drawing from Georgia and South Carolina — and approximately 2,400 local jobs,” the Corps’ Col. Jeffrey Hall said.
“These are not all construction jobs, but jobs in the area that contribute directly and indirectly to the effort or support those working on the project.”
Foltz said he looks for local hiring on the project to start ramping up in the first half of next year as actual construction gets closer.
Barring delays, the project is expected to be complete in 2016.
Georgia’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals support more than 352,000 jobs throughout the state annually and contribute $18.5 billion in income, $66.9 billion in revenue and $2.5 billion in state and local taxes to Georgia’s economy.
The Port of Savannah was the second busiest U.S. container port for the export of American goods by tonnage in FY2012, handling 13.27 million tons. It also handled 8.1 percent of the U.S. containerized cargo volume and 11.6 percent of all U.S. containerized exports.
The Georgia Ports Authority board elected Robert S. Jepson Jr. of Savannah to serve as chairman, beginning July 1. The chairman and chief executive officer of Jepson Associates Inc., a private investment firm he founded in 1989, succeeded Alec L. Poitevint of Bainbridge.
Jepson said the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project will remain the top priority under his watch.
Stephen S. Green, who chaired the board from 2008 through 2010, will serve as Jepson’s vice chairman, while Roy Fickling of Macon will maintain his position as secretary/treasurer.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Jepson to the GPA board in 2008, and he previously served as vice chairman.
“Alec and Steve Green before him have been exemplary chairmen, understanding the importance of harbor deepening and working to move the ball forward,” Jepson said. “My job is to continue that strong focus.
Jepson formerly headed The Jepson Corp., a NYSE-listed 14-company conglomerate, and Kuhlman Corp. He currently serves on the boards of Dominion Resources Inc. in Richmond, Va., the Lucas Theatre in Savannah, the Georgia Historical Society and is chairman of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Board of Visitors.
He served as chairman of the 2008 SEUS/Canada Alliance Conference in Savannah and was the first chairman of the Georgia Cancer Coalition.
Georgia Ports Authority wrapped up fiscal 2012 with record cargo volumes, growing faster than any other port in the nation for the last eight years and sporting a 10-year compound annual growth rate nearly double its closest competitor.
In his annual “state of the ports” address, GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz told a packed house at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center: “This means we’re not just rising with the tide. It means that, as the tide rises, we continue to outpace other ports.”
Foltz told his audience the GPA moved a record 2.98 million TEUs — or 20-foot container equivalents — in the year ending June 30, falling just 16,000 shy of the 3 million mark.
“We’ll get there this year,” he assured the group.
The Port of Savannah was second only to the Port of Los Angeles in container export volume, making it one of the most — “if not the most” — balanced ports in the country, Foltz said.
“The confidence our customers have in the GPA’s services has benefited not only the ports but the state’s job picture as a whole,” Foltz said, pointing to major port-related announcements that represent more than 5,600 new jobs statewide.
Among them was 1,400 jobs at the new Caterpillar plant in Athens, 900 jobs at Bed, Bath & Beyond’s Pendergrass site and an 800-job expansion at the Big Tex trailer-building facility in Cordele.
“Our ports may be on the coast, but there isn’t a corner of the state they don’t affect,” he said.
—Business in Savannah