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Georgia Ports board approves Mason Mega Rail project

  • Georgia Ports Authority Board members approved the Mega Rail project at their board meeting on Monday. The project will double on-dock rail capacity. (DeAnn Komanecky/Savannah Morning News)
  • The Port of Savannah is poised to rapidly increase service to an arc of inland markets, from Atlanta to Memphis, to St. Louis, Chicago and the Ohio Valley. Key to expanding rail service is a $128M project linking Garden City Terminal’s two rail yards. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Ports Authority/Stephen B. Morton)
  • Gate 8 at the Garden City Terminal will be expanded from eight truck lanes to 16. The expansion project will bring the total truck lanes at GCT to 54. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Ports Authority/Stephen B. Morton)

The Georgia Ports Authority approved rail and gate expansion projects on Monday that will double on-dock rail capacity and open service to inland markets.

The board unanimously approved spending $42.2 million as part of GPA’s $128 million Mason Mega Rail Terminal project.

The project will reduce travel time from Savannah to an arc of inland markets from Memphis to Chicago by 24 hours, Lynch said.

The project benefits imports and exports, and it will also provide much needed relief for Garden City residents and travelers stopped at railroad crossings throughout the day.

“The focus is two-fold,” said Griff Lynch, GPA executive director. “One is to increase capacity for growth (at the port) and to alleviate impact on the community.”

There will be a significant decrease in rail traffic through neighborhoods, Lynch said.

Estimates are that instead of railroad crossings being blocked maybe 10 times a day, it will drop to once or twice a day.

The reduction in crossing times will get a major boost from the trains being built at the terminal. Rail switching at the terminal will keep trains from moving forward and then backwards into the rail yard to hook-up more rail cars.

That isn’t the only good news for drivers. The project will also reduce the number of trucks coming and going from the port.

“Over the next several years it will take 100,000 trucks off the road a year — easy,” Lynch said.

An overpass for vehicles will be constructed at Ga. 25 at Pipemakers Canal as part of the project. The overpass will take vehicular traffic over rail lines and the canal.

When complete, the $8.2 million bridge will reduce the delays for vehicles that are regularly stopped by trains at the port’s intersection with the state highway. The bridge project will require the closure of Ga. 25 at Pipemakers Canal. Traffic will be rerouted to Ga. 21 and Ga. 307 for about a year, according to Georgia Department of Transportation officials.

Also included in the project is building two rail bridges across Pipemakers Canal.

The Mason Mega Rail terminal will combine the Chatham and Mason rail yards, operated by CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. The new terminal will allow 10,000-foot trains to be loaded at the terminal with containers double-stacked. Those trains will increase the capacity from 500,000 container lifts per year to 1 million.

For the project, 18 new railroad tracks will be built, adding 97,000 feet of new rail, Lynch said.

The authority previously approved $44 million to order needed rail mounted gantry cranes for loading the trains. The cranes are made by Finnish company, Konecranes.

A total of $90.7 million has been allocated to the project thus far. Construction is slated to begin soon and should be completed by the end of 2020.

FASTLANE, a federal grant program, approved providing $44 million for the overall project. The grant program, now in its second year, requires expedited delivery of infrastructure projects that support the growth of the economy and encourages use of American products.

GPA’s project was approved in the grant program’s first round of applications.

The authority also approved on Monday an expansion of the port’s Gate 8 at a cost of $13.2 million.

Gate 8 has 12,000 trucks a day pass through. The expansion will increase the current eight lanes to a maximum of 16 lanes. That will give the Garden City terminal a total of 54 truck lanes. Gate 8 was opened in 2016.

“What makes Georgia and the Georgia Ports Authority a continuing success story is the relentless effort to stay one step ahead of the curve and the competition,” said Jimmy Allgood, GPA board chairman. “The projects approved today will do exactly that.”

Harbor deepening

GPA officials, including board Chairman Jimmy Allgood and Executive Director Griff Lynch, traveled to Washington, D.C., this month to talk about funding for the Savannah’s harbor expansion project.

The project’s cost continues to rise since 1996 when the estimates put the tab at about $250 million, Lynch said.

The now $1 billion civil works project to deepen the Savannah River channel from 42 feet to 47 feet is 35 percent complete.

The state contributed $231 million in bonds for the project while the federal government has failed to do their share, Gov. Nathan Deal has previously said.

“We want to see the other side of the partnership,” Lynch said.

Allgood said the GPA group met with Army Corp of Engineers officials, members of the Office of Management and Budget.

“We also talked with members of the vice president’s staff and a White House staff member,” Allgood said.

Lynch said all the agencies are supportive of the project.

Georgia’s congressional delegation warned in a letter to the House Appropriations Subcommittee in June that underfunding the massive project could cost the country more than $1 billion.

Led by U.S. Rep Buddy Carter, the bipartisan delegation urged the subcommittee to make additional funds available.

The Port of Savannah was one of only two harbor deepening winners in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018, basically splitting the administration’s proposed $108 million with the Port of Boston.

While that allocation was appreciated, Carter previously said, it’s not enough.

“The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that without annual funding of $80 million to $100 million, the project cannot be completed on time, with the resulting delays costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” Carter said.

Estimates provided last month indicate the nation’s economy will reap $7.30 in benefits for every $1 spent on construction. The previous ratio was $5.50 to $1. A net benefit of $282 million a year is expected, up from previous $100 million estimates.

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