Area public officials and business leaders have been glowing since the Northeast Georgia Inland Port was officially announced by Gov. Nathan Deal at a Dec. 3 gathering at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.
But there are concerns about local traffic impacts.
“It’s going to help our community and our tax base,” Gainesville-based Syfan Logistics CEO Jim Syfan said of the port planned for 104 acres off Gateway Centre Parkway off Ga. 365. “It will create jobs.”
However, “Ga. 365, in my opinion, is mostly saturated with freight during peak times right now. When a container gets to the inland port, it has to be taken off that train and put on a truck to go to its final destination.”
Companies exporting goods also will be lining up at the inland port.
At full build-out, the port will have the capacity to handle up to 150,000 containers per year, officials have said. The port is expected to open in 2021.
Syfan said he hopes the Georgia Department of Transportation “gets on (traffic impacts) right away.”
“The roads need to be upgraded to be able to handle that additional traffic.”
Katie Strickland, the DOT’s district spokeswoman, said only that the Georgia Ports Authority and Hall County “are leading the project and GDOT will work collaboratively with them as the project moves forward.”
Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said the city has approached the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Hall area’s lead transportation planning agency, about a traffic impact study for the area including the inland port, which is in unincorporated Hall.
“We see it more of a study of northeast Gainesville,” Lackey said. “The study area will include Ga. 365 just outside the city limits but will also include Exit 24 (off Interstate 985), Limestone Parkway and the effects of Lanier Tech.”
Lanier Tech is opening a new campus off Ga. 365 at Howard Road, south of the inland port.
“The growth in this area of our community will change the traffic patterns significantly, and we need to conduct this study to be ready to address these challenges,” Lackey said.
Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the inland port’s traffic could be more localized.
“These facilities have a limit of how far they can really reach,” he said. “If you’re in Charlotte (N.C.) and you want to send something to the Port of Savannah, it makes no sense to bring that container to Gainesville. If you’re (on the west side of) Atlanta and want to send a container to Savannah by rail, you could do that at the Austell (rail) yard. You don’t have to come to Gainesville.
“So, I’m not sure this (inland port) is going to be drawing traffic from 60 miles away, but we’ll see as it develops,” Evans said.
“Part of the (Ports Authority’s) location search (for the port) was to be close to the industry concentration that would be its customer base,” Evans said.
And for Hall County, that includes such area companies as Kubota Manufacturing of America Corp., which makes zero-turn mowers, sub-compact tractors and utility vehicles, and Germany-based car parts maker ZF, Evans said.
Another major player is the longstanding poultry industry.
Savannah is the largest port in the nation for broiler exports, said Mike Giles of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation President.
The Georgia Ports Authority “has done an outstanding job over the years of investing in infrastructure which has improved the level of service for poultry shipments through Savannah,” Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said.
“This new inland rail yard is a continuation of that type of investment in the future connectivity between the Georgia poultry industry and our customers worldwide.”
Phil Sutton, Kubota vice president of administration, said the company “anticipates several levels of potential cost savings with the new inland port, including reduced costs for chassis and container fees and reduced (free trade zone) administrative fees.”
He added: “We expect a reduction in lead times due to greater availability of empty containers and shorter transit times to and from the inland port.”
The inland port also has become an issue in the potential for increased railway traffic, especially in Flowery Branch, where city officials are working with Norfolk Southern to close the Chattahoochee Street crossing.
Norfolk Southern is paying to put in a signal known as a “lunar light” that would help guide trains to at least clear Lights Ferry Road, the most frequently used crossing downtown, and stop at Chattahoochee as needed.
The new port “could increase train traffic, so hopefully the lunar signal will help to reduce the time the train parks on all our crossings here in town,” Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew said.
Otherwise, Illya Copeland, head of the Murray County Industrial Development Authority in Northwest Georgia, said the inland port in Hall could be “a total game-changer” for the community.
He has some expertise in that area, as the Georgia Ports Authority opened the Appalachian Regional Port opened in August in Murray.
The Appalachian port, which is near the Tennessee border, has “been a very blessed asset to (our) community,” he said. “This week, we’re closing on our third (industrial) project in the last three months … and we’ve got a healthy pipeline in 2019.”