Cargo dips at Georgia ports after record-smashing FY2015

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Total cargo moving through Georgia's seaports dipped over the past 12 months after volumes reached record-smashing levels in fiscal 2015, the Georgia Ports Authority reported Monday.

The ports in Savannah and Brunswick handled a combined 30.8 million tons of imports and exports in the 2016 fiscal year that ended June 30. That's down 2.7 percent from the previous year. The Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port, moved 3.6 million container units — giant metal boxes used to ship consumer goods from electronics to frozen chickens — for a decrease of 1.6 percent.

Port expected a slowdown after cargo volumes soared to record highs in 2015, boosted by West Coast labor woes that resulted in cargo being diverted to Savannah and other East Coast ports. Griff Lynch, the port authority's executive director, said a relatively strong dollar also hurt demand for U.S. exports in the past year.

Lynch said he anticipates growth of 3 percent or more in fiscal 2017, with Savannah approaching a milestone 4 million container units just three years after the port first exceeded 3 million containers.

"It's going to get us awfully close," Lynch said. "What it will do is give us a record. We might be a hair short of the 4 million (container) mark."

Liquid and dry bulk goods such as vegetable oil and wood pellets used to fuel overseas power plants dropped 16.6 percent compared to the prior year, while automobiles and heavy machinery were down 8.6 percent. Port officials said the decline in automobiles was largely caused by the loss of 45,500 Volkswagens after the automaker decided to leave the Port of Brunswick for Jacksonville, Florida.

Still, overall tonnage at Georgia's ports remains up roughly 6 percent compared to two years ago, when import and export volumes reached a then-record 29 million tons.

And the port authority's governing board is still investing in sustained growth. On Monday, the board approved $20 million — roughly half from Georgia taxpayers and half from the ports' own revenues — to build an inland terminal north of Atlanta designed to move cargo by train more than 380 miles to the Port of Savannah.

Announced last year, the Appalachian Regional Port will sit on 42 acres formerly used to raise cattle in Murray County. Located about 90 miles north of Atlanta and 40 miles southeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the site is a short drive from carpet and flooring manufacturers in Dalton as well as poultry producers and chemical plants.

Port officials say the new terminal will save customers time and money by eliminating the need to haul cargo by truck through Atlanta to Savannah. They estimate the rail port will eliminate 40,000 truck trips through Atlanta each year.

Scheduled to open in 2018, the rail terminal is expected to directly employ 20 to 30 workers, Lynch said. But it's expected to spur more job growth by causing new businesses such as parts suppliers and retail distribution centers to open nearby.

"It's going to have far-reaching impacts," Lynch said. "Taking trucks off the road, for sure, and allowing us to service that market better."