SAVANNAH — The Port of Savannah loaded and unloaded a milestone 4 million shipping container units for the first time in 2017 as larger cargo ships fueled double-digit growth at its docks, the Georgia Ports Authority announced Monday.
That makes Savannah only the fourth U.S. seaport to handle that many container units — each equal to one-half a standard 40-foot shipping container — of combined imports and exports in a single 12-month period.
Savannah's busy seaport — Charleston's nearest maritime rival — surpassed the 4 million mark in a calendar year marked by an 11 percent increase in containers with goods ranging from consumer electronics to frozen chickens. Port officials largely attributed the growth to giant ships that began transiting the expanded Panama Canal in the summer of 2016.
"We fully expected to see increases, but we did not expect to see this," said Griff Lynch, executive director of Georgia's state-operated seaports. "Every time we expect it to slow down a little, it doesn't."
Less than four years have passed since the Savannah port first exceeded 3 million container units in 2014. And reaching that prior milestone from 2 million containers took eight years.
Georgia Ports officials hope the rapid growth will spur Washington to increase funding to deepen the Savannah River shipping channel that stretches 39 miles from the port to the Atlantic Ocean.
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah needs deeper water to make room for larger ships that otherwise need to carry lighter loads or arrive at high tides. The Port of Charleston, for example, will begin a $529 million project in February to deepen its shipping channel to 52 feet.
The Savannah harbor expansion, at a cost of $973 million, has been underway for more than two years, with dredging funded mostly by $260 million from Georgia taxpayers. Both President Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him have requested far less than the roughly $100 million in annual federal funding that state officials say the harbor deepening needs to avoid delays.
"We don't care where the money comes from, we've got to find the money to finish," said Jimmy Allgood, board chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority. "We will lose business if the river is not deepened."
Gov. Nathan Deal has asked Georgia lawmakers this year to approve an additional $35 million in state funds for the harbor deepening. Allgood said that money should help fund dredging without interruption for another two years.
Three other U.S. ports still handle much heavier container traffic than Savannah. The Port of Los Angeles moved 9.3 million container units last year. The Port of Long Beach, California, handled 6.8 million through November, while the Port of New York and New Jersey reported more than 6.1 million container units during the same 11-month period.
The Port of Charleston also has benefited from bigger ships visiting the East Coast, with a record 2.17 million containers in 2017. That represented a 9.1 percent increase from the previous record, set a year earlier.
"It was a good year for containerized trade — the global port industry had its strongest year since 2010," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority. "I think it surprised a lot of people that the U.S. economy was stronger than people thought it would be and a lot of the emerging economies were stronger than people thought they would be."
The Port of Virginia also set a record for containerized cargo in 2017, with 2.84 million containers, or 7 percent better than the previous year.