Tariff fears helped Georgia ports set cargo records in 2018

- Shippers worried that the trade war between the U.S. and China could escalate in 2019 helped cargo volumes at Georgia's busy seaports reach record levels last year, the state's top ports executive said Tuesday.

In spite of new tariffs imposed by the two countries last year, the Port of Savannah saw containerized cargo - goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens shipped in large metal boxes - jump 7.5 percent to a record 4.34 million container units in 2018.

The Georgia Ports Authority also reported that overall cargo at its seaports in Savannah and Brunswick increased 5.3 percent to nearly 37 million tons (33.5 million metric tons), another record.

Griff Lynch, the port authority's executive director, said in an interview Tuesday that much of the past year's growth was fueled by a strong economy. Trade was already booming at the Savannah port, which in 2017 became only the fourth U.S. port to handle more than 4 million container units in a single year.

Lynch also credited a "rush of cargo" triggered by the U.S.-China tariff duel.

"At the end of the day, we know the tariff deadline had a piece of this," Lynch said. "We had shippers and customers looking to advance their cargo, saying, 'Let's get it in before Jan. 1.'"

The U.S. and China have raised tariffs on tens of billions of dollars of each other's goods in the dispute over American complaints Beijing steals or pressures foreign companies to hand over technology. Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping agreed Dec. 1 to suspend further tariff increases for 90 days while they negotiate.

As a result, Lynch said, cargo volumes at Georgia ports are seeing a double-digit increase over last year. And he expects more strong numbers in February.

"We see us ending the fiscal year (on June 30) strongly, but probably not as strongly as we've seen these past six months," Lynch said. "We're seeing that March will probably taper off. It's too soon to say what happens in May and June."

The three U.S. ports that handle heavier container traffic than Savannah - the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, California, and the Port of New York and New Jersey - also reported container volume growth of up to 7.2 percent last year.

Georgia has been investing heavily in its ports in anticipation of future growth. The booming terminal used to ship automobiles through Brunswick is undergoing a big expansion, while Savannah is building a new rail terminal and adding ship-to-shore cranes.

Meanwhile, a $973 million federal project to deepen the Savannah River, making room for larger ships now reaching Savannah through an expanded Panama Canal, is halfway complete.

"Things are really ticking here in Savannah," Lynch said. "I feel strongly we would have seen growth regardless of the tariff issue."

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