Business at the Savannah ports continues to be strong, Effingham Industrial Development Authority members learned Thursday morning, and ports officials expect the growth to continue.
Stacy Watson, general manager of industrial development for the Georgia Ports Authority, told IDA members the Savannah port continues to expand.
“We’re seeing good, strong growth,” he said. “Business is good.”
While Watson added the growth wasn’t as explosive as four or five years ago, it’s still been consistent. The port’s volume has grown 5 percent over the last year, going from 6.2 million tons of freight to 6.5 million tons. The port has handled 3.7 percent more containers, going from 742,593 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) to 770,190, for the first quarter.
Forecasts call for the port of Savannah to handle 2.9 million TEUs in 2012.
“It’s amazing to me because just six years ago, we hit the 1 million mark,” Watson said. “It’s phenomenal growth.”
Meanwhile, the port of Charleston’s volume for the first quarter of the fiscal year was off by 27 percent.
“We are still gaining market share,” Watson said.
That share could grow even more in the next few years if the proposed harbor deepening for Savannah is approved and takes place.
“We’ve gone over one major hurdle,” Watson said, noting that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has endorsed the harbor deepening. “It’s not the last hurdle — we’ve still got a couple more to jump.”
The Georgia Ports Authority and the state want to take the Savannah River from its current depth of 42 feet to as much as 48 feet. Officials want to have the dredging and deepening done in time to coincide as closely as possible with the expansion of the Panama Canal.
Work on the Panama Canal, and allowing larger ships to pass through, is scheduled to be completed by 2014. Seventy percent of the Savannah port’s business comes through the Canal, and every foot of depth added to the harbor allows a ship to add anywhere from 200 to 400 containers, according to Watson.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release its final study on the impacts of harbor deepening this winter, to be followed by a public comment period. A review in Washington, D.C., of the study and comments will be next, and a final decision on whether the harbor deepening can take place is expected next year.
The dredging and deepening, if it goes forward, will take three and a half to four years to complete.
The state’s fiscal year 2011 budget included $68.4 million in bonds to back the harbor deepening. The project is expected to cost $400 million and the federal funding remains a question.
“The state of Georgia’s funding for the harbor deepening is there,” Watson said. “The federal funding, that has yet to be determined.”
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited the ports earlier this week and though he couldn’t promise any funding for it, he said he could bring all the players to the table and stress its importance, Watson told IDA members.
Watson also asked the IDA members to continue to support the ports and their harbor deepening plans.
IDA CEO John Henry said many of the prospects they talk to are driven to the area by the Savannah port’s two terminals.
“It’s such an impressive facility,” he said.
The GPA also is working on its Last Mile project, which is expected to alleviate congestion on Highway 21. An overpass over Highway 307 is expected to be completed in June 2012.
The Jimmy Deloach Parkway extension, pegged at $121 million last year, has a target date of December 2015. Right-of-way acquisitions are under way, Watson said, and the 3.1-mile long Jimmy Deloach connector will allow the ports to build another gate into the facility.
“It will be a faster access to Effingham County and get some of the trucks off Highway 21,” he said.
Watson also said the ports’ export volume continues to grow, especially in what are called “dirt, trees and chicken” — kaolin, pine products and chickens. Exports grew by 12 percent last year and now represent 53 percent of the port’s volume.
“We’re seeing more export growth than import growth,” he said. “We are shipping a lot of commodities to Asia, and they are coming back as finished products.”
The Savannah and Brunswick ports also have seen a 16.3 percent increase in breakbulk volume, and Brunswick is the fifth-largest port for autos.
Last year, the ports had a prolonged shipping season for the holidays while this year’s holiday season shipping may have more of a spike.
“We’ve hit an early peak this season,” Watson told IDA members.