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When is inland port coming? Here’s what’s needed before project can move forward
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Construction has yet to begin on the Georgia Ports Authority's inland port regional cargo terminal to be built in Gateway Industrial Centre off Ga. 365 at White Sulphur Road. - photo by Scott Rogers

With a wetlands permit and property mostly in hand, the Georgia Ports Authority is now trying to pool together funding before it proceeds with building the Northeast Georgia Inland Port in northeast Hall County.

The authority has spent $8 million to $9 million on buying land for the cargo terminal off White Sulphur Road near Ga. 365.

Hall County is working to assemble a small last portion needed for a roadway into the 104-acre site. At the Feb. 8 Board of Commissioners work session, attorney Van Stephens said the county would take the necessary steps to acquire the property in a “timely fashion” by either negotiation or condemnation.

The county said it plans to use the property for transportation purposes but declined to comment on the matter with The Times, citing “pending litigation.”

James C. McCurry Jr., the authority’s chief administrative officer, told The Times in a recent interview the property isn’t absolutely crucial.

“I think we can construct and operate the facility with what we have now, but it would not necessarily be the best and least impactful way for … traffic flow.”

The bigger issue for the authority is securing funding to complete the $100 million project.

“Our intention is that this project would be handled with internal revenues, and that has been our limiting factor in pursuing this (inland port) to this point.”

The authority is seeking federal Department of Transportation funding, with an application due in March.

“If we are successful with the grant, we ought to be able to have sufficient funds to get started with the actual construction and see this operational, hopefully, in a couple of years,” McCurry said. “Hopefully, we can make it a very compelling story and one the U.S. DOT would want to invest in.”

He is optimistic about the authority’s chances, even though it lost out on a federal application last year. At that time, “the feedback we got ...was that it was a good project, very compelling, it just didn’t meet the final cut. Hopefully, we can make that final cut this time.”

The federal money is crucial to proceed with the project “in the immediate future,” McCurry said. “Without the federal partnership, we do not have sufficient available resources to proceed with construction at this time.”

McCurry said he sees the need for the project.

The port, using Norfolk Southern railroad lines, would be “in a very rich Georgia export area and a very rich consumption zone,” he said. “It’s a regional project. It would be in Hall County but with the intent of serving that entire Northeast Georgia region but also western South Carolina and eastern North Carolina.”

The authority already has an inland port near Chatsworth in northwest Georgia that reaches into Tennessee, Alabama and western North Carolina.

Initially, some 60,000 containers per year could arrive at Hall’s inland port, McCurry said.

The Port of Savannah will handle some 3 million containers overall this year, “so 60,000 is not a vast portion … but it’s a lot of containers not on trucks going from (Savannah) to (Hall).”

So, while there’ll be less truck traffic making long hauls to and through the Hall area, it’s expected there’ll be an uptick in local truck traffic.

That has helped prompt a recent local study that looks at projected traffic through 2050 in an area encompassing the port and downtown Gainesville and particularly along Jesse Jewell Parkway in New Holland.

Fixing future road congestion between downtown Gainesville and the planned inland port could cost about $300 million, the study says.

A list of intersection improvements and numerous road projects, such as widening Jesse Jewell Parkway to six lanes at Interstate 985, are suggested. One of the biggest projects would be widening Limestone Parkway to six lanes, estimated at $35 million.

The report also says that a “no-build” option isn’t particularly an option.

“Due to high growth, several signals and unsignalized approaches are expected to experience poor levels of service by year 2050,” according to the study.

McCurry said truck traffic around the port likely would increase, but he expects that it will “disperse pretty quickly,” especially in the port’s initial phase.

“As the port grows, that could change,” he said.