Macon’s a long way from the ocean, but it stands a good chance of becoming a port.
An inland port, that is — a place where trucks and even trains loaded with goods from Savannah’s port can drop off their cargo for later processing or further moves.
Macon City Councilman Mike Cranford has said as many as 2,500 jobs could be created here if Macon is designated an inland port.
In a way, it would be a return to the past. Macon was launched because of trade from Fort Hawkins, and its riverfront became an important trading spot nearly two centuries ago. By 1826, Macon was trading with 26 counties, historian John C. Butler said.
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Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said another phrase for inland port is “multimodal distribution center,” melding highways and roads with trains and airplanes. Shipping containers from Savannah could be brought to Macon and then reshipped. Or they could be repacked. Or they could be unpacked, and the parts inside could be assembled into new products, and then shipped out again.
Macon has been increasingly focused on warehousing and distribution centers. The location is ideal for such an inland harbor, because traffic can move along Interstates 16, 75 and 475, as well as on Norfolk Southern and Georgia Central rail lines to Savannah. Industrial properties are available near the rail lines and Middle Georgia Regional Airport, which is targeted for a runway lengthening.
“You need land with rail to attract the rail users,” Topping said. “We need land around the airport to attract companies that need the runway. And the airport and the industrial authority are looking at ways they can expand the amount of land they have around the airport. These are all long-term projects, but you’ve got to start thinking of them sometime.”
Laura Mathis, director of public administration for the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, recently told Bibb County commissioners that in some ways, Macon’s inland port proposal is already more advanced than that of Cordele, which some people see as competition. For example, Macon already has foreign-trade zones at Sofkee and Airport East industrial parks.
Mathis said the area has other benefits, such as being part of strategic alliances along I-16 and U.S. 341.
“It all just comes together in a nice, central place,” she said.
Ideas but no plans
The 2010 Georgia Logistics Report, a state publication, describes how such inland ports could be created. The first steps: see if there’s enough of a market for the port to thrive and then figure out how to market and launch an inland port. But there are other challenges. The governments of Macon and Bibb County last week agreed to ask for the state legislators’ help in becoming an inland port.
State funding could be necessary to get infrastructure improvements that would make the inland port a success. Local leaders have long sought improvements to the I-16/I-75 interchange — estimated at nearly half a billion dollars.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert wants a road cut across swampland between his city and Robins Air Force Base, which would also provide better access from I-16 to most of the area’s industrial parks. That total project cost hasn’t been estimated, though it may take about $90 million just to go across the swamp.
The state’s logistics report said when inland ports are running well, “cluster theory materializes.” In short, once enough businesses of one type are grouped together, they can thrive. Witness the aerospace companies around Robins Air Force Base or the carpet industry around Dalton.
Inland port in a sea of change?
Mud essentially is what’s driving the push for inland ports. Panama’s moving plenty of mud to build larger canal locks, and Savannah plans to move mud to get a deeper harbor.
The mud removal will clear the way for bigger ships to start reaching harbors. Bigger ships could mean bigger business. Nearly three-fourths of the material moving through Georgia’s ports goes through the Panama Canal.
The Georgia Ports Authority said Savannah can grow from last year’s equivalent of 2.4 million 20-foot containers to 6.5 million in a decade. Savannah’s competing against other East Coast ports.
And Macon, if it became an inland port, could be competing, too. Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said communities seeking inland ports include Macon, Cordele, Augusta and even Chatham County, just miles from Savannah’s port.
That will take a plan, Long said, and money. A state transportation plan calls for $15 billion over the next 20 years to address freight and logistics routes across the state. That’s on top of maybe $30 billion for metro Atlanta’s congestion and $14 billion for people to move across the rest of the state.
Long said Georgia’s per-capita transportation funding — the second-worst in the United States, after Tennessee — needs to increase. The state hasn’t decided where it would find the money.
“We’re definitely going to have to come up with some innovative ways for policy makers, a menu to select from,” he said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.