Savannah Port Economics: Should it Expand?

Large ship in the port of Savannah

Proponents argue a number of reasons why a Savannah Port expansion would be a good thing for Georgia and the immediate port region. These benefits include a port with higher capacity for processing shipping, a boost to U.S. exports in general, and a financial boost the Georgia in terms of jobs and business revenue. This, of course, looks very promising when the state’s unemployment is currently in the range of 10 percent.


Unfortunately, the amount of research available on the topic in terms of preliminary or advanced projection studies is minimal or nil. No one aside from the Army Corps of Engineers has really spent time sitting down and studying what an expanded port actually means for the region economics aside from a big cost. And that study only focused on the impact to national shipping, not jobs or revenue generation. Only one reference in the Army Corps study touched on labor, noting that a 46 foot dredging of a new shipping channel could generate 5,000 potential jobs, assuming companies hired to handle the extra shipping workload. That impact would be felt over four to five years after the port was dredged.

The above said, the 5,000 jobs are only expected to last a year versus being permanent. So, in essence, an actual person staying in the same position over the same period really equates to 1,000 five-year jobs, far less than it really sounded. So while there is an income boost to the area that would benefit retail businesses, it is not near as much as first projected. Keep in mind that the port already holds 14,131 people employed. So 1,000 more for five years is only a 7 percent increase in potential earned income among the affected worker population.

Other Impacts

In terms of business impact, Georgia businesses are at risk of losing jobs if there is no port action, however. In addition to the 14,131 there are approximately 7,500 positions in support businesses that provide materials and consumables for port businesses. Megaship business opportunities will go elsewhere, seeking deeper draft ports. With more and more business going to larger ships for consolidation because they carry more, that spells ill for Savannah in its current design.

In Summary

A port expansion will cost millions of dollars and there will be heavy reliance on the federal government to help ($400 million to be exact). Up front it seems like a high price ticket to pay for effectively a 1,000 position job gain. However, the U.S. has limited port access on its coast, so it should consider each viable area as an asset. With the move to megaships a given, Savannah’s port expansion likely means the livelihood of 21,000 plus jobs and 1,000 more in reality. Not doing anything could very well turn Savannah into a marine version of Detroit.

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