After nearly two decades of planning, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) this month has begun a $706- million deepening of the Port of Savannah harbor by 5 ft. It formally signed a Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) Oct. 8 with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps expects bids on Oct. 29 for a dredging contract for 19 of 40 miles of entrance channel, estimated at $100 million. Another estimated $75-million contract to build dissolved oxygen injection systems should receive bids Oct. 31, says James McCurry, GPA senior director of government affairs.

The overall project, which will deepen the inner harbor to 47 ft and the entrance channel to 49 ft, is part of a planned $1.4-billion investment over the next decade. The deepening will allow for an additional 3,600 cargo containers in each transit, an increase of 78%.

GPA officials say they intend to give Port Authority of New York & New Jersey a run for its money in the race to dominate East Coast port traffic, which is expected to increase when the third set of locks for the Panama Canal opens, allowing for passage of super-sized ships.

The PPA came one day after New York-area port stakeholders convened for the annual Port Industry Day, held at 4 World Trade Center. Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye noted that $3 billion has been invested in the last decade, and dredging of all channels to 50 ft is on track for completion by 2016.

"Game on," he said of Savannah, adding, "We can't take our preeminent position for granted." He noted the planned $1.3-billion raising of the Bayonne Bridge by 2016 to accommodate post-Panamax ships, and a $320-million project to rebuild Greenville Yards, a century-old rail station that will become a rail and barge transfer facility.

The port industry in general is facing "unprecedented change," said John Carver, executive vice president with Ports America, a terminal operator working with 42 U.S. ports. "Everything is on the table. Public-private partnerships, divested assets and operations, joint ventures for landside and transportation investments." But the impact of the canal expansion is hard to predict, Carver added. For example, U.S. grain exports might increasingly be moved to Gulf ports by barge instead of rail.