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A Savannah Backlog

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A Savannah Backlog

Back in September of 2021, the Port of Savannah, Georgia suffered a severe logjam. The fourth-largest gateway in the US for seaborne imports, Savannah was mired in a backlog of 20 plus container ships that remained idle on the waters adjacent to the port. 

The West Coast is more accustomed to backlogs of this scale. Long Beach and Los Angeles ports have a history of congestion. In fact, around the same time, the Marine Exchange of Southern California measured up to 66 container ships and 73 vessels off the Southern California ports. But 20 plus vessels were new for Savannah and as a result Georgia’s port authority fast-tracked a $34 million injection to expand Savannah’s container storage capacity. The port began adding space to eventually hold 1.6 million more containers over 20-foot equivalent units. The measure seemed to work until recently. 

Savannah is embroiled yet again in another bottleneck. As of late July, up to 40 vessels have been backed-up raising new concerns of supply-chain disruptions. After clearing last year’s backlog Savannah registered nothing in the spring of 2022. But ships have had trouble arriving at berths in recent weeks as demand has more than doubled as compared to pre-pandemic times. Major retailers have been moving up their back-to-school and pending holiday imports which are testing Savannah and others. 

The Port of Savannah handles an estimated 2.9 million containers per year. The previously mentioned $34 million upgrade expanded storage capacity, but one of Savannah’s berths is under construction and that is complicating the current situation. Unfortunately for the port, construction is not slated to be completed until 2023. 

Southern California ports are picking up the slack with this pandemic-fueled retail boom. Los Angeles and Long Beach have registered as few as 17 backlogged vessels (a good sign for the west coast) and the Port of Charleston in South Carolina is prepping for increased traffic due to Savannah’s issues. Charleston is 100 miles north of Savannah and all clear for the moment. They had similar concerns in February of this year (30 container ships waiting for berths) but appear to be in a favorable position to mitigate the pressure on Savannah. 

Meanwhile, some analysts think the problem could solve itself if retailers begin pulling back orders due to excess inventories and less demand as consumer spending declines. Big retailers like Target, Walmart, Macy’s, and Kohl’s are sitting on lots of products, many of which are no longer selling at the levels during the pandemic – workout equipment, apparel, and furniture to name a few. Less demand for future ellipticals means less vessels to berth. 



Being the Nos. 1 & 2 busiest roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) ports in the nation isn’t quite good enough for the ports of Baltimore and Savannah/Brunswick. At least the Maryland Port Authority and Georgia Ports Authority are not resting on their laurels, anyway. These East Coast ports are doing their best to maintain their top-two rankings through initiatives such as investments in expansion and training programs for warehouse workers that are designed to increase efficiency and reduce damage and accidents in the loading/unloading process.

These growth initiatives are helping to not just cement the ports’ statuses in the Ro/Ro world—Baltimore has been the No. 1 Ro/Ro port in the United States for eight years running—but it’s making them even more desirable and competitive places for automobile manufacturers to do business.

Port of Baltimore

The Port of Baltimore continues to expand and thrive despite an uncertain trade climate. Larry Johnson, sales manager of Trade Development, Automotive, credits his port’s success to efforts to maintain positive relationships with their automotive industry partners, keeping those industry partners loyal.

One such partner, Volkswagen Group of America, recently began a partnership with Port of Baltimore to begin importing vehicles through the Tradeport Atlantic in Sparrows Point, which could provide an increase of 120,000 vehicles annually—and an additional 100 jobs.

The port also benefits from its proximity to the Midwest—it’s the closest seaport to Middle America—and with top notch services like efficient rail, cargo can get to destinations faster than from any other port on the East Coast. Baltimore’s strategic location is within two-thirds of the U.S. with just an overnight drive.

The Baltimore port’s training initiatives have helped cultivate the lowest damage rates in the industry. The port has also pioneered a program, Ro/Ro Rodeo, which is an intensive class to educate manufacturers in the highly specialized processes required to handle each specific type of vehicle that is processed through the port. Ro/Ro Rodeo has even developed a program for the highly specialized processing of farm and other industrial equipment

With almost 200 acres of pavement at the Dundalk Marine Terminal alone, the Port of Baltimore consistently breaks its own records for Ro/Ro processes, often increasing its volume as frequently as month to month, and their investments in expansion and training will likely keep that volume increasing for years to come.

“The Port of Baltimore is the No. 1 auto port in the nation and continues to break cargo records every month,” says Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in the September/October 2019 edition of Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore Magazine. “Our administration is committed to furthering this growth and strongly supports our great port and its thousands of hardworking men and women handling the millions of tons of cargo coming in throughout the year.”

Ports of Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia

The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) is the No. 2 Ro/Ro port in the United States. Its Port of Savannah increased volume almost 250,000 TEUs in 2019, according to the GPA. This growth of 5.6 percent over the previous year came at a time when auto sales are actually dropping–a true testament to the hard work of the port employees at Savannah and Brunswick.

A banner year for the ports, the Ocean Terminal recently won contracts with both Volvo and General Motors. The Colonel’s Island Terminal in Brunswick is a Ro/Ro-only port that is already home to International Auto Processing, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions and Mercedes Benz USA.

The GPA properties are undergoing an expansion that will eventually create an additional 150,000 spaces for automobiles, bumping their processing capacity from 900,000 annually to 1.5 million. There are currently three dedicated Ro/Ro berths that process cargo via nine different steamship lines.

“Both Savannah and Brunswick are outperforming the market, with Garden City container trade growing at a rate three times faster than the U.S. total, and Brunswick Ro/Ro units increasing despite a drop in U.S. vehicle sales in 2019,” says GPA Board Chairman Will McKnight in a Jan. 28 statement.

Growth Despite Uncertainty

Strategic locations, ample space and work ethics that include faster cargo processing, in-depth training and safety records that far eclipse many competing ports are just a few reasons that these ports are leading the pack in Ro/Ro. With the onset of trade tariffs, such as those imposed on China, and reports that the United States’ manufacturing industry has experienced slowed growth recently, these ports have nevertheless managed to increase growth consistently. Growth when economic uncertainly looms large is a true testament to the power of excellent service and sound investment.

If these and other Ro/Ro ports can continue to capitalize on trends such as exporting goods to other countries competing for business with China, they will have learned that they can not just maintain their positions in the Ro/Ro processing rankings, but keep growing.