SAVANNAH — Georgia's busy seaports announced another year of record growth Tuesday, though their chief executive warned business will suffer in the coming year if the U.S. doesn't resolve its trade war with China.
The Georgia Ports Authority reported a record 37.5 million tons (34 million metric tons) of cargo moved through its ports in Savannah and Brunswick in the 2019 fiscal year that ended June 30. That's an increase of 4.2% over the previous fiscal year.
Cargo containers shipping goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens through the Port of Savannah reached a whopping 4.5 million container units of imports and exports. Savannah became only the fourth U.S. port to handle more than 4 million container units in 2017.
Some of the fiscal 2019 growth was fueled by businesses shipping goods early in hopes of avoiding tariffs imposed in the trade war between President Donald Trump's administration and China. A strong economy also boosted the numbers, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the ports authority.
But Lynch said he expects an ongoing trade war would hurt the ports' business in fiscal 2020.
"If the tariff situation doesn't get resolved, I think we will certainly feel it for the year forthcoming, on the exports especially," Lynch told reporters. "So we've got to get a resolution there and I think we will."
He noted that container volumes for Savannah were down about 2.5% in June compared to the same month last year. Lynch said construction that delayed some ships from arriving until July was mostly to blame.
"On the export side we are seeing a little bit of a dip," Lynch said. "That could very well be linked to the tariffs."
New tariffs could take a direct chunk out of the Georgia Ports Authority's bottom line. The Trump administration has proposed adding ship-to-shore cranes to its list of imported goods for which steep tariffs get charged. If that happens, Lynch said, the Georgia ports would pay $25 million in tariffs on $100 million in cranes set to arrive in the next year.
Regardless, Lynch said he's "cautiously optimistic" Georgia's ports will see more growth in the coming year.
A $973 million federal project to deepen the Savannah River, making room for larger ships now reaching Savannah through an expanded Panama Canal, has reached the halfway mark. Will McKnight, the port authority's board chairman, said deeper water where the shipping channel meets the Atlantic ocean is already improving efficiency.
So is Savannah's investment in moving cargo to and from Savannah's docks by train. A major rail expansion won't be finished until 2021. Still, the port moved more than 500,000 shipping containers by train for the first time in fiscal 2019.
Automobile shipments grew 4% in the past year at the Port of Brunswick, which handled nearly 614,000 vehicles and heavy machinery units.
Lynch said the auto growth included 8,000 Volkswagen vehicles that shipped to Brunswick. The automaker left the Georgia port in 2015 after signing a deal with the nearby Port of Jacksonville, Florida. Lynch said Volkswagen sent some vehicles through Brunswick in recent months when Jacksonville couldn't handle the volume. And Georgia is looking to possibly woo back Volkswagen when its five-year contract with the Florida port ends.
"We want them to know, and they do know, we are highly interested in that business as it comes available," Lynch said.