SAVANNAH, Ga - Cargo traffic at Savannah's busy seaport fell just shy of a milestone 3 million containers for a third straight year, according to performance numbers released Monday by port officials, who blamed the shortfall on a threated strike by East Coast dockworkers last fall.
The strike threat had caused U.S. retailers to divert thousands of containers of Asian imports to the West Coast.
The Georgia Ports Authority said a recovering U.S. economy helped boost the overall performance of the state ports in Savannah and Brunswick during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The ports handled a combined 27.23 million tons of imports and exports, a record weight that's up 2.4 percent over the previous fiscal year.
But months of tense contract negotiations between shippers and the union for East Coast dockworkers proved costly for the Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port. Although mediators averted a strike, the mere threat caused retailers to bypass Savannah and re-route about 70,000 containers of consumer goods to the West Coast between October and February, said Curtis Foltz, executive director for Georgia's ports.
``It would have been anything you purchased at Target and Wal-Mart, Lowe's and Home Depot'' and other major retailers that import products from China, Foltz said. ``If we wouldn't have had that, we would have exceeded the 3 million (container) mark.''
The Savannah port still handled more than 2.94 million containers of imports and exports in fiscal 2013, its second-highest volume ever, largely thanks to business rebounding in the last three months. Container traffic at Savannah has exceeded 2.9 million but hovered just below 3 million since fiscal 2011.
Foltz said he expects container volumes at Savannah will exceed record levels in fiscal 2014 based on continued economic recovery in the U.S., though financial troubles abroad could reduce demand for Georgia exports.
Revenues at Georgia's ports totaled nearly $293 million, up $9 million from the previous year but still $6.4 million short of the state agency's budget projections. Port officials said reduced shipping rates and the midyear loss of container business contributed to the financial shortfall.
Growth in other sectors kept the amount of cargo moving through state ports up overall.
Automobile imports continued to fuel growth at the Port of Brunswick, which added Toyota and Subaru as customers in the past year. That helped increase shipments of autos and heavy machinery by 11.7 percent in the past last year, with more than 636,000 total units moved. Brunswick is now the third-busiest U.S. port for automobiles and other roll-on, roll-off cargo.
Shipments of lumber, plywood and other building materials also made a strong comeback in Savannah, thanks to increases in home construction. Bulk goods such as wood pellets used to fuel European power plants were up nearly 50 percent from the prior year. That includes more than 148,000 tons of corn imported by Georgia poultry farmers to feed their chickens last year when drought withered crops in the Midwest.
Robert Jepson, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority board, praised the agency's staff for ``a really good year amid trying times.''