LISTEN: The Georgia Ports Authority outlined desired infrastructure projects at a State of the Port event in Savannah. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

Georgia Ports Authority executive director Griff Lynch speaks at the 2023 State of the Port event on Thursday at the Savannah Convention Center.

Georgia Ports Authority executive director Griff Lynch speaks at the 2023 State of the Port event on Thursday at the Savannah Convention Center.

Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

The Port of Savannah has catapulted in recent years to become one of the nation's busiest, but two bottlenecks are holding it back from reaching its full potential — at least for now.

At an annual State of the Port event Thursday attended by hundreds of business leaders at the Savannah Convention Center, Georgia Ports Authority executive director Griff Lynch said that more vertical space is needed along the Savannah River, achievable by raising the Talmadge Memorial Bridge and deepening the harbor.

“We have ships today that want to come here today that cannot fit under the bridge,” Lynch told reporters. “And we have had to turn that business away and tell our customers we can't do it.”

In order to help the port meet its projected 65% container traffic growth in 2035, he expects that the Georgia Department of Transportation will begin lifting the bridge around October 2024 by adjusting its cables, with completion in late 2026 or early 2027.

The exact height of the lift has not been determined, but GDOT will make that decision in the coming months, Lynch said.

Only after that project is complete could harbor deepening begin, in a process involving state and federal agencies that Lynch said would be achievable in nine or ten years and which would lower the river floor by roughly three to five feet.

At a current depth of 47 feet, the harbor underwent a roughly 25-year-long deepening project that finished in 2023, which has made it possible for the port to accommodate vessels carrying as much as 16,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of container cargo.

Further deepening would allow it to handle ships hauling up to 22,000 TEUs. This would be the Savannah River's final harbor deepening project, Lynch said, as ocean carriers have found their optimal ship capacities to be between 18,000 and 22,000 TEUs.

By the time the harbor is deepened, a new port terminal is expected to be complete on Hutchinson Island in 2030.

During his speech, Lynch promised attendees that the Port of Brunswick would within three years become the country's busiest port for “roll-on/roll-off” ships, which carry wheeled cargo such as cars and trucks.

East Coast ports such as Savannah's and Brunswick's are benefiting from a recent shift in global trade patterns, in which more cargo is coming from India and Southeast Asia. By using Egypt's Suez Canal, ships from these regions can arrive in the U.S. via the Atlantic Ocean up to five days sooner than they would by taking the Pacific Ocean to West Coast ports.

Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns also spoke at the event, saying that the Savannah River has been the “lifeblood” of Georgia's economy for nearly 300 years.

“Those of us in the General Assembly will continue to see to it that Georgia has the freight and logistics infrastructure necessary to keep our ports growing and thriving,” Burns said. “We are absolutely not going to rest on our laurels.”