SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Port of Savannah began construction Tuesday on a $127 million rail terminal designed for longer trains that can take advantage of bigger cargo ships arriving at the busy seaport and target new customers in the Midwest.
The new hub for transferring cargo between trains and docked ships will be a "game changer" for Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port, said Jimmy Allgood, board chairman for the Georgia Ports Authority. It will replace two smaller rail terminals at the port.
The new Mason Mega Rail terminal will add thousands of extra feet of track to enable the port to load trains that are 10,000 feet long. It will also double Savannah's capacity to move 40-foot cargo containers by rail to 1 million containers per year by 2028. About half the added capacity will be available as soon as 2020.
The port authority's goal is to expand Savannah's customer base farther inland and compete for cargo that currently moves through ports on the West Coast. Allgood said the new terminal will allow CSX and Norfolk Southern trains to carry cargo directly to cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati, shaving up to 24 hours off transit times.
"It will open a new corridor for American commerce to and from the Midwest," Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement.
Georgia is already trying to capitalize on the Savannah Port with its Appalachian Regional Port being built on 42 acres in Murray County on U.S. Highway 411 just north of the unincorporated community of Crandall. Shipping containers will be transferred from rail cars to semi trucks — and vice versa — after the port opens in October 2018.
The shipping containers will arrive in landlocked Murray County after a 388-mile trip by rail on CSX Transportation tracks from the Georgia Port Authority's Garden City Terminal, just northwest of Savannah.
Port officials say the longer, more efficient trains that will move on the new rail line started Tuesday will reduce the need for trucks to haul cargo, removing about 200,000 tractor-trailers from Georgia highways each year.
The rail expansion comes as larger cargo ships are coming to Savannah through the recently expanded Panama Canal. The Army Corps of Engineers is about midway through a $973 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel that links the port to the Atlantic Ocean.
The big ships are arriving, though they have to carry lighter loads and navigate the river at higher tides. Savannah already is seeing more cargo as a result. The port last year handled a record 4 million container units, each equal to one-half a standard 40-foot shipping container.