inland intermodal port georgia ports authority

Delivering Supply Chain Relief for Ports Through Pop-Up Container Yards

Georgia Ports Authority Finds Congestion Solution with Intermodal Sites Hundreds of Miles from Shore

By Wes Dortch, Kevin Keller and Matt Van Hattem

With containers piling up at ports and intermodal terminals in 2021 amid unprecedented freight bottlenecks, HDR supported the Georgia Ports Authority in pioneering a creative solution: pop-up container yards. These facilities are providing relief for the Port of Savannah by staging containers at off-dock locations served by truck and rail and away from on-dock staging areas used to maintain efficient day-to-day operations at the port.

The term “pop-up” speaks to the uniqueness of the concept and the urgency of the need. While a typical port container yard or intermodal facility might take years to plan, design and build, the “pop-up container yard” approach fast-tracked the implementation process by converting sites that were previously developed for other purposes into temporary storage and inland port facilities, where containers can be held or picked up by customers for delivery with minimal startup time and investment. (The concept is similar to the “pop-up warehouses” developed by retail companies several years ago to handle growing volumes of e-commerce transactions.)

The Port of Savannah is the second busiest container port and the busiest container exporter on the U.S. East Coast. These facilities are relieving supply chain issues in Georgia and could serve as a model for other ports and facilities.

A Freight Bottleneck

As shipping delays across the United States worsened, President Joe Biden assembled a Supply Chain Disruption Task Force in June of 2021 to identify key constraints and develop solutions. With port congestion becoming a critical area of focus, the White House appointed former Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary John Porcari to serve as the task force’s Port Envoy. Within days of starting his new position, Porcari placed a call to the GPA asking for help. GPA then placed a call to HDR.

The GPA knew that HDR would be an ideal partner to help it develop a solution for the White House task force that would regain the Port of Savannah’s throughput capabilities and reduce shipping delays for port customers throughout the Southeast U.S. The GPA had an idea for a supply chain relief program involving the use of temporary inland storage sites and intermodal rail transportation to move large volumes of containers. It then asked HDR to assist in refining the concept and developing a proposal requesting federal funding for a pilot project that would test the concept using a small number of inland sites, some in far-away locations served by rail and some close to the port served by truck.

An Offsite Solution

Over a four-week period in September and October, HDR and the GPA held multiple calls and online meetings to discuss several aspects:

  • presenting the concept to the White House task force;
  • articulating the details of specific locations and parcels;
  • conveying the magnitude of the solution, in terms of container units expedited and shipping delays reduced;
  • and framing the funding proposal using familiar elements from federal grant applications to help task force members clearly understand the problem, solution and use of funds being requested.

Meanwhile, GPA worked with its Class I railroad partners, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway, and regional economic development agencies to locate sites already equipped with many of the needed features for container storage and multimodal transfer capabilities (locations such as minimally used or deactivated parking lots and rail-served parcels), which could be quickly retrofitted into yards for the Port of Savannah. Short-term leases governing land use, equipment rental and truck haulage were swiftly completed. And the GPA quickly executed service agreements with CSX and NS for container transport on existing intermodal trains from the Port of Savannah to several of the remote sites, helping to facilitate the rapid development of an entire network of strategically located pop-up container yards throughout the Southeast U.S.

HDR reviewed potential sites with the GPA and discussed benefits and drawbacks, ensured that information concerning site specifications, capacities and cost requirements for each location was obtained from various port authority officials and incorporated into the proposal for a complete funding request, prepared graphics portraying the network of truck- and rail-served container yard locations, and wrote and formatted the complete funding proposal for the White House task force. The final funding request clearly articulated the concept’s purpose and need, its fundamental operating principles, anticipated payback and general benefits, and the estimated capital and operating costs for a six-month pilot.

HDR also helped the GPA with the messaging of the concept for the White House audience. GPA executive director Griff Lynch suggested the term pop-up container yards to describe the idea (the working term had been grounding centers) and HDR and GPA developed a project name that would convey the importance of the concept as a regional supply chain solution: the South Atlantic Supply Chain Relief Program.

Dramatic Benefits

On Nov. 9, 2021, the White House unveiled an Action Plan for America’s Ports and Waterways, which included $8 million in funding for the South Atlantic Supply Chain Relief Program. The award provided the capital costs and funding for six months of operation at five demonstration pop-up container yards in Georgia and North Carolina. Three sites are served by CSX trains, two of which were developed by leasing available portions of land at CSX intermodal facilities in Atlanta (Hulsey Yard) and Rocky Mount (the newly opened Carolina Connector), as well as land adjacent to an existing GPA inland port in Chatsworth. (As part of a previous, unrelated project, HDR had assisted CSX with the initial feasibility study for the Carolina Connector intermodal facility.) Closer to the port, a Norfolk Southern real estate parcel in Savannah is used for storage and local truck deliveries, supplementing a truck-served site in Statesboro that serves a regional warehousing center in Southeast Georgia.

Within three weeks of the White House’s announcement — and less than three months after the port’s initial call to HDR — the first pop-up container yard was in operation. Four of the five sites were handling containers by the end of the year, and the fifth opened in February 2022. Altogether, the five new facilities add an annual capacity of 410,000 TEUs to the port, the equivalent of 21 “mega-ships” each holding 19,600 TEUs.

The strategy has paid dramatic dividends. By mid-December, GPA had cut the volume of stored containers at the Port of Savannah by nearly 25%, regaining operating capacity that reduced the backlog of ships waiting for berth space at the Port from 31 vessels in mid-October to just six. From the program’s beginning in late November 2021 to mid-February 2022, the average dwell time for containers at the port dropped from 17 days to less than 10, with much of the difference attributed to the creation of these new inland facilities.

Successful Federal Grant Record

The funding strategy was built on an established relationship between the GPA and HDR’s port and freight rail planning teams. Through grant applications prepared by HDR over the past seven years, GPA has been awarded more than $140 million from the federal FASTLANE, INFRA, and Port Infrastructure Development programs to advance critical projects that have improved supply chain efficiency throughout the region.

These previous projects include a new rail intermodal container transfer facility at the Port of Savannah that will double the Port’s container handling capacity on and off railcars and relocate switching activities onto port property and away from surrounding communities, funded in part with a $44 million FASTLANE grant; a new inland port under construction in Northeast Georgia that will provide a rail transportation option for customers in place of a long-haul truck move on congested Atlanta highways, funded in part with a $46.8 million INFRA grant; as well as berth expansion projects for container shipments at the Port of Savannah and automotive shipments at the Port of Brunswick.

An Opportunity for Industry Transformation

Across North America, seaports have struggled with congestion, a lack of warehouse and cargo storage space and continued shortages of truck drivers and truck chassis. The GPA’s success illustrates one practical solution to these chokepoints.

Ports that can leverage strong relationships with rail carriers to implement similar solutions have an opportunity to quickly improve throughput, reduce backlogs and increase efficiency across their entire region. Funding is likely available through federal grants, and an understanding of the complex federal procurement process will be critical for agencies interested in developing and implementing similar strategies.

Those willing to perform the coordination and planning necessary will find that pop-up yards can provide a viable option for easing bottlenecks, adding supply chain resilience and lowering container storage costs.

About the Authors

As our east region ports and maritime leader, Wes Dortch leverages 25 years of diverse transportation design experience and 17 years of specialized port and marine design and project management experience to serve our clients’ waterfront and waterborne commercial needs. He has an intimate understanding of the operational, commercial, funding, aging asset management, and available land and berth space challenges facing the industry.

Kevin Keller, our U.S. director of rail planning, has considerable experience and extensive program management skills, with over 25 years of experience in the management, environmental and engineering fields. He has successfully developed grant applications that have secured more than $270 million in federal funding, specifically for seaport, riverport and intermodal facility development.

Matt Van Hattem is a works across the U.S. for us as a project task lead and senor railway operations analyst and planner. Van Hattem works closely with Class I freight railroads, passenger and commuter railroads, port authorities, and state transportation agencies, shaping their transportation needs into strategic plans, operational analyses, and feasibility studies, as well as grant applications that have awarded HDR clients more than $200 million in funding.