SAVANNAH — Coming off a year of record-smashing growth, Georgia's top ports executive said Thursday he's convinced the Port of Savannah can someday overtake New York as the busiest seaport for containerized cargo on the East Coast.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, dropped the ambitious goal on a crowd of 1,300 Savannah business and civic leaders attending his annual speech giving a progress report on the state's ports. The Savannah port moved a record 3.1 million container units in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Just eight years ago Savannah broke the milestone of 2 million cargo containers for the first time.
"It's time to look toward 4 (million)," Foltz said. "It's time to grow and become No. 1 on the East Coast. Something that was unfathomable probably a decade ago, I think, is something that's at least within our sight."
Explosive growth at Savannah's port, largely fueled by growing demand for consumer goods in the Southeast, has made it the fourth busiest U.S. seaport for cargo containers used to ship goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens. On the East Coast, only the joint Port of New York and New Jersey sees more containers move through its gates.
Savannah still faces a formidable trade gap with New York and New Jersey, which reported moving 5.4 million container units in the same fiscal-year period. That's 74 percent more containers than Savannah handled. Figures for both ports include some empty containers that are shipped without cargo inside.
Asked how long it might take Savannah to catch up to its northern rival, Foltz said: "Fifteen years from now, I think we can all look at the numbers and we might be surprised."
Officials at the Port of New York and New Jersey had no comment on Foltz's remarks, said spokeswoman Lenis Rodrigues.
Foltz said the Port of Savannah plans to keep expanding in anticipation of more growth as the region's population keeps increasing. The Georgia Ports Authority will invest $1.3 billion in the next decade to increase its capacity from being able to handle 4.5 million containers to 6.5 million by 2024. In the same period the port plans to increase its number of ship-to-shore cranes from 22 to 30.
Meanwhile, Georgia is pushing for work to begin soon on a $706 million project to deepen the Savannah River shipping channel to make room for giant cargo ships expected to arrive soon through an expanded Panama Canal. While federal money to begin dredging remains scarce, Gov. Nathan Deal wants to get started using $266 million in state funds. First, state officials must reach a cost-sharing agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency overseeing the project.
Deal said earlier this month he hoped to have the agreement signed before October. Foltz said Thursday that could still happen.
"It is imminent," Foltz said. "I truly believe we are now in a period of days or weeks, not months."
Georgia officials say getting the cost-sharing deal signed would make it possible for the Corps to award construction contracts by the end of the year. Completion of the harbor deepening would be expected sometime in 2018.