- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A midyear growth spurt in cargo volume has the Port of Savannah on target to handle a record 3 million containers of imports and exports by the end of the fiscal year this summer, Georgia’s top ports executive said Monday.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, told the agency’s board of directors that Savannah moved 1.54 million containers in the six-month period from July through December. That’s up 5.8 percent from the same period last year.

It’s the first solid sign of an economic rebound in the Savannah port’s critical container business in a while. For the past three years, volume at Savannah has stayed flat at just over 2.9 million containers.

“We will exceed 3 million for sure in the upcoming year,” Foltz told reporters after the board meeting Monday. “To me, all it means is we’re on our way to 4 million.”

Savannah has the nation’s fourth-busiest container port, and is No. 2 on the East Coast behind only the shared seaport of New York and New Jersey. Foltz attributed midyear growth largely to U.S. retailers ordering more goods from Asia, a sign that consumers are spending more as the economy recovers.

Overall tonnage at Georgia’s ports in Savannah and Brunswick was up as well. Combined, the ports handled 14.3 million tons of cargo - everything from consumer electronics to soybeans, frozen chickens to automobiles - since July 1. That’s 8 percent ahead of the same period last year.

Automobiles and tractors were up 6.8 percent to 343,065 units during the first half of the fiscal year. That’s mostly thanks to a boom in new cars being imported and exported through the Colonel’s Island terminal in Brunswick.

The Georgia Port Authority saw $150.3 million in midyear revenues, a figure Foltz said was up nearly 4 percent from a year ago but still lagged behind budget forecasts.

The economic good news comes as Georgia and federal officials are in the final stages of launching a $652 million project to deepen Savannah’s busy shipping channel. Port officials believe the omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this month contains language that clears the final bureaucratic obstacles to getting the project started, though the Army Corps of Engineers is awaiting a green light from its Washington headquarters.

Robert Jepson, board chairman for the Georgia ports, said he suspects work to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River will be underway by the middle of 2014. The Savannah harbor expansion will make room for supersized cargo ships expected to arrive via an expanded Panama Canal by mid-2015. Gov. Nathan Deal has called it Georgia’s most important economic development project.

“We’ve waited a long time,” Jepson said. “We are almost to the point we can congratulate ourselves on the first dredge moving into the river.”

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