The passage of the federal Water Resources and Redevelopment Act earlier this summer means the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is officially not an "if" but a "when."
Environmental monitoring by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began at the end of July, and the Georgia Port Authority has already purchased four Super Post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes and 20 new rubber-tired gantry cranes for $86.5 million in order to accommodate the massive freighters expected to arrive by 2018.
State legislators and GPA officials are still awaiting a project partnership agreement with the Corps, but construction of the $706 million project, which includes dredging the Savannah River by five additional feet for 32 miles, may begin as soon as December.
While federal studies show that every dollar invested in SHEP will reap $5.50 for the nation’s economy, questions remain regarding how SHEP will affect Savannah and nearby coastal communities: How many, if any, long-term jobs will be created? Can the surrounding roads and rail handle the increased traffic? What might be the repercussions of having the competing ports of Charleston and Jacksonville close by?
A new study funded by Georgia Sea Grant may have some answers.
A part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Georgia Sea Grant keeps its headquarters at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens but maintains a satellite at the UGA Marine Extension Services on Skidaway Island.
With a mission that includes supporting sustainable economic and population growth on the coast and building a strong partnership between coastal communities and metro Atlanta, the program has directed resources to explore the changes that SHEP may bring in addition to the much-discussed environmental concerns.
“Most of the regional attention to the Savannah Harbor deepening has focused on the ecological effects to the river and the adjacent wetland ecosystems,” says Charles Hopkinson, director of Georgia Sea Grant.
“We want to shift the focus to local communities so that they are prepared to handle the secondary impacts that are likely to accompany the port expansion.”
Heading up the research is Dr. Stephen Ramos, an urban planner and associate professor in UGA’s College of Environment and Design. Originally from Baltimore, MD, Dr. Ramos is familiar with how massive infrastructure projects like SHEP can dramatically affect the scalar growth of a city: He did his Harvard doctoral dissertation on a little town called Dubai.
“The functional and spatial interdependence between the port and its urban context define port cities,” he writes in the introduction to Dubai Amplified: The Engineering of a Port Geography.
In a phone interview, he laughingly acknowledged that Savannah is just a teeny bit smaller than the glittering capital of the United Arab Emirates. But he notes that Savannah and nearby Garden City and Brunswick will likely experience change on a large scale and that it’s important to understand the spatial and resource capacities of these coastal communities.
“We call it ‘geotechnical’ intervention,” explains Dr. Ramos. “A lot has gone back and forth between Atlanta and Washington about SHEP. We want to help people benefit from the development at the municipal and county levels.”
Some of the areas that Dr. Ramos and his team will examine are transportation and land use changes as well as anticipated increases in air pollution, available housing for the temporary workforce needed to build the expansion and whether any of those temporary jobs will translate into long-term positions.
They will also look at whether cities will need to invest in additional infrastructure in the form of alternate routes and bigger distribution centers to accommodate the surge in 18-wheeler traffic: The number of cargo containers that will need to come out of Garden City after they’re unloaded from the water is expected to jump from 2.9 million to 6.5 million by 2030.
The study will generate a whole lot of data that will better inform what Dr. Ramos calls “the logistics landscape.” Geographic information systems (GIS) will be employed to manage the input and organize it into an accessible format.
“We’re trying to establish a consortium of information for sharing and get a real idea of regional capacity,” he says.
A synopsis of the two-year study was presented to the Coastal Regional Commission of Georgia on Aug. 13 and will officially begin Sept. 16 at a meeting that will assimilate additional input from local planning authorities.
While Dr. Ramos proffers deep respect for all who have worked to make SHEP a reality in the past 15 years, he warns that it may be years before coastal residents experience any of its economic promises.
“This isn’t Christmas morning. It’s something more complex than that,” he admonishes.
Neither is the study meant to be a “told ya so” moment should the team find that SHEP may end up costing Savannah and its surrounding towns millions of dollars to build extra infrastructure.
“Whether you agree that the project is a good idea or not, it’s happening,” he says.
“What we’re interested in is how it’s going to play out on land. We’re here to help create a framework and make suggestions.”