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Editor's Note: Can we all truly profit from the port?
Image from the Sept. 12 GPA 'State of the Port' address - photo by Image from GPA Twitter

THE PORT OF SAVANNAH is by most measures the fourth-busiest in the U.S.

You could make a good case that it’s actually third-busiest, since the top two ports, L.A. and Long Beach, California, are contiguous and in practical terms almost the same facility. (At the number-three spot is New York/New Jersey).

Savannah now accounts for 20 percent of all port traffic on the U.S. east coast.

That’s not exactly breaking news. The Georgia Ports Authority has racked up record-year after record-year in container traffic, so much so that we’ve almost become jaded at the jaw-dropping numbers.

What is breaking news is that in a few years the Port of Savannah is set to double in traffic.

That’s right — the fourth-busiest port will probably not rank number four much longer.

This development will come courtesy of a new container terminal on Hutchinson Island, which will allow Savannah to increase its yearly container tonnage from 5.5 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU) to 11 million TEUs.

As a follow-on impact, the bridge over the Savannah River — by whichever name — will almost certainly have to be torn down and rebuilt even higher.

But that’s not all: Keep in mind that the state-run Savannah Convention Center is also set to double its size and capacity.

Whether that’s a wise decision remains to be seen, but the point is that Hutchinson Island, the Savannah River, and our road/rail infrastructure, especially in West Chatham, are all going to see some truly gargantuan development the next few years.

As usual, we have to ask at what cost?

And will you and your family personally benefit from this?

When you double container traffic into the port, you also double transportation traffic out of the port.

That means more 18-wheelers and more trains on an already overburdened transportation infrastructure, and more environmental impact on an already overburdened Savannah River watershed.

While for decades Savannahians have been trained to reflexively regard the Port of Savannah as an unquestioned boon for the local economy — and also trained to never, ever question its methods — does the sacred cow really provide a cornucopia of prosperity here at home?

Economists will tell you that because of our port and our road/rail logistics network, Savannah’s economy is very closely linked to Atlanta’s economy.

“Symbiotic” is a word I’ve seen used to describe the twinning of the two economies, four hours apart by car but inextricably linked by global trade.

Atlanta, of course, is a national economic success story, one of America’s so-called “Superstar Cities,” in addition to hosting the vast bulk of Georgia’s post-recession job growth.

It doesn’t take an economist to see that GPA’s stunning success has helped Atlanta more than it has Savannah. I’ve argued that the Port of Savannah is essentially extracted profit, and I think most macro-economists would agree.

We’re always told how many local jobs the port produces, but like any other industry in the 21st Century, the port is trying to automate as much of its operation as possible. The enormous warehouses that serve the port’s record volume are also looking to automate as much as they can.

And due to friendly tax abatements, all that square footage of warehouse space that local powers-that-be like to tout are funnelling little to no property taxes back into local schools and public services.

The goods that the port brings in — about 90 percent from Asian markets via the Panama Canal — are sold elsewhere. Savannah’s port, our roads, our bridges, and our train tracks are just the conduits.

In exchange we get backed up tractor-trailer traffic, pollution, and massive degradation of our wetlands.

And thanks to the latest dredging of the Savannah River channel to accommodate the huge ships of the 21st Century, we’ll also get increased riverbank erosion that at some point will likely threaten high-dollar developments all along the river.

A couple of decades ago, local government used to receive a small fee per shipping container, to help offset the local impacts from the port.

Like many good ideas which once helped regulate and mitigate the impact of unfettered globalism, that small fee went away, and Savannah’s indentured servitude to Atlanta became formalized.

Why can’t we bring such a container fee back, now that the port breaks records every year?

And use it to improve the infrastructure and environment that will suffer from the Port of Savannah’s doubling in size?

There are already a host of various surcharges on containers, from stevedore charges to Coast Guard fees to wharfage charges.

Why not a specific “community impact fee,” or whatever terminology you prefer?

The usual response from local politicians is, “The City (or County) has no control over the port. That has to come from higher up. There’s nothing we can do.”

But just a couple of weeks ago Savannah City Council passed a gun control resolution, in an area where they explicitly admitted they had no legal power, where they said they were just trying to send a strong, unified message to the state legislature.

If local government can do that for guns, why not do the same to set the groundwork and solidify public demand for establishing a new container fee?

It’s a legitimate question, especially in an election year.

I’ve been covering port-related stories for two decades, mostly involving the environmental impact of dredging deeper and deeper to accommodate bigger and bigger cargo vessels.

Some of the ideas from back in the day to mitigate this impact seem almost amusingly quaint now — such as the pipe dream of having some kind of offshore floating container port, with smaller vessels shuttling up and down the Savannah River to load and unload.

Dream on. Turns out it’s much more attractive for multinational companies to convince port cities to just dredge deeper and make the bridges higher to fit the big ships, ad infinitum into the future.

They don’t have to pay much of anything for that to happen. But the cities do.

It’s time that the citizens of Savannah demand a more equitable relationship with their port, and hence with Atlanta.

The Port of Savannah certainly isn’t going away any time soon — but neither are we.