PORT WENTWORTH — The move to get Savannah port truck traffic off Highway 21 got a major shove Thursday afternoon.
Officials, led by Gov. Nathan Deal, turned ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt to signify the start of the long-awaited Jimmy DeLoach Parkway extension known as the “Last Mile” project. Work on the 3.1-mile-long connector, which will tie I-95 into the port, is expected to begin immediately.
While the impact on the state is expected to be significant, the effect on Effingham commuters is expected to dramatic, especially the thousands who use Highway 21 each day.
“Every truck that it takes off 21 impacts Effingham citizens,” said Effingham County commission Chairman Wendall Kessler, “because it makes travel easier for our citizens to get in and out of Savannah.”
“It’s going to be a very, very positive thing for us,” said Ann Purcell, the 1st Congressional District representative on the State Transportation Board.
The governor also saw that removing the thousands of trucks off 21 alleviates congestion for other motorists.
“This will be a huge relief,” Gov. Deal said. “It will serve multiple purposes.”
Impact of the ports
The driver behind the Last Mile project is the growing truck traffic at the port of Savannah. The harbor’s deepening project, estimated to be $652 million, is awaiting federal funding, and the governor said the federal Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which includes the harbor deepening, could be brought to the U.S. House of Representatives floor next week.
Deal pointed out the project has passed every hurdle — including having the decision of record signed by all necessary federal agencies — except one.
“We have our money ready to go,” the governor said. “We want them to tell us we can go ahead and start spending our money and start dredging.”
Agricultural products remain the state’s top export, Deal noted, and Savannah is the primary port of export.
“The port of Savannah is an economic engine for the entire state,” he said. “There is not a county out of the 159 that does not in some form or fashion benefit from the port.”
The harbor deepening was designed to happen in conjunction with the widening of the Panama Canal. The improved canal will allow for the transit of much larger vessels, carrying much more cargo and needing harbors with deeper water.
“Once those vessels are unloaded, we have to have a way to get those trucks out of there and to destinations in Georgia and throughout the nation,” Deal said. “It will save a lot of time and it will make the port more attractive.”
The governor made a recent visit to Panama and was informed the canal widening is behind schedule.
“I said that is perfectly all right. Just take your time, because we are behind schedule,” he said.
Larger ships are expected to be allowed through the improved Panama Canal in 2015, and Deal doesn’t want the Savannah port to lose out on ships carrying more containers that may call on other ports instead.
“We cannot afford to lose out on that traffic,” he said. “As soon as the port is deepened, it will add to the traffic we currently have, and that’s why this particular project is so very important.”
The state has committed $231 million to the deepening project. Deal was a member of Congress when the original authorization was passed 14 years ago.
“We had no idea the project was going to cost this much,” he said. “We had no idea it was going to take this long to get us to this point in time. It has seen the cost of the project accelerate.”
The extension itself
The project, with an estimated cost of $72.8 million, will redirect nearly 8,000 trucks a day off Highway 21.
“What a feat that will be,” Purcell said.
The Last Mile will extend Jimmy DeLoach Parkway to Highway 307/Bourne Avenue near the port’s main gate and will provide a limited-access, four-lane route straight from I-95.
The state Department of Transportation has invested $100 million in the project, Purcell said, and more than 95 percent of the rights-of-way needed have been acquired.
Work on the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway extension is pegged to be finished by May 2016.
“We were hoping it would be completed by 2015,” Purcell said.
The connector will be built east of Highway 21 and approximately parallel to it. Six new bridges will be built, and there will be new interchanges at Grange Road and Pierce Avenue. Also, 25 acres of wetlands will be mitigated.
“We depend on the right thing under the direction of our marvelous governor to pass the budget that helps us get the funding in the Department of Transportation for projects such as this, that are so vital for the economic development of Georgia,” Purcell said.
The extension, when completed, is expected to form a cargo beltway serving the fourth-busiest and single-largest container terminal in North America, officials said.
“Today we mark the start of construction of Jimmy DeLoach Parkway extension,” said Robert Jepson, the chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority’s board. “Georgia’s leaders are laying the foundation for a strong economy through wise investments in the state’s deepwater ports and logistics infrastructure. This foundation improves Georgia’s competitiveness in international trade and ensures efficient access for Georgia’s producers to global access. Our state has become the Southeastern logistics hub of choice.”
An east-west link for the ports and I-95 was first brought up 30 years ago, and the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway, named in honor of former Chatham County commissioner Jimmy DeLoach, opened to traffic in 2002.
“This is a long time coming,” said Jay Shaw, the chairman of the State Transportation Board. “The DeLoach connector shows the unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration between Gov. Deal, the transportation and ports authority boards and Georgia DOT.”
Shaw also said the governor is a strong proponent of economic development, and Gov. Deal emphasized Georgia has been named the No. 2 state in which to do business by Site Selection magazine. He reiterated his desire for the state to be named No. 1.
“Transportation is the driving force behind economic growth,” said state DOT Commissioner Keith Golden.