Import-export capacity at the Port of Brunswick's Colonel's Island shipping terminal increased by 50 percent this year, state officials said Thursday. 

The facility moved more than 600,000 vehicles in fiscal year 2017, and the Georgia Ports Authority hopes to see increased growth in the coming months, according to Griff Lynch, the authority's executive director, who spoke Thursday at the annual State of the Port luncheon on Jekyll Island. 

"Since last year, we've been implementing an aggressive growth plan, enabling the (Georgia Ports Authority) and our auto processing partners to win new customers and capture greater market share," Lynch said during his keynote address. 

Colonel's Island, one of three Port of Brunswick facilities, is the second busiest auto port in the country, behind one in Baltimore, and is the nation's largest. It docks specialized cargo ships that carry vehicles, which are driven off and on the vessels in a process called "roll-on, roll-off." 

The terminal increased its number of parking spaces from 60,000 to 90,000 this year, and has capacity for 800,000 vehicles annually. Three of the port's customers, International Auto Processing, Wallenius Wilhelmnsen Logistics and Mercedes, have already made use of the 30,000 additional spaces, and the Georgia Ports Authority has plans to continue that growth. The spaces were added to 200 acres on the terminal's south side, bringing Colonel's Island's total vehicle storage acreage to 600. 

Another planned expansion will allow for 1.4 million vehicles to process through the terminal annually. 

"Growing our infrastructure will allow (the Georgia Ports Authority) to better serve the needs of auto processors and manufacturers as they rely more heavily on our terminal to meet customer demand," Lynch said. "This investment puts the Colonel's Island facility on track to become the nation's the No. 1 auto port."

Port authority officials are aiming to have 20 percent more processing capacity than customers are currently requesting, Lynch said. That goal has previously been set for the Port of Savannah, and officials are hoping to replicate the success in Brunswick. 

"Last year, we told you we would be implementing an infrastructure investment philosophy we've used at Savannah's container operation for years now," said Jimmy Allgood, Georgia Ports Authority board chairman, during Thursday's luncheon. "That philosophy is to maintain capacity above current demand. Investing for the future has enabled (the Georgia Ports Authority) to take on new customers and handle greater than expected container growth without congestion or capacity worries. We anticipate the same benefits for the auto trade here in Brunswick."

Preparing for the future may be prudent for the authority. Over the past decade, the Port of Brunswick has seen an 8 percent growth rate, which is four times higher than its nearest competitor. 

The size of ships is also increasing. In 1998, the largest freighters could carry about 6,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units, a measurement commonly used in multimodal transportation. In 2017, that number had grown to 14,400 units in the largest ships. 

To accommodate the growing size of ships, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is already dredging to deepen the Savannah River, and is expected to begin maintenance dredging in the Brunswick River in December. 

About $10.3 million of federal dredging funds allocated for the Brunswick River went unused in 2017 and will roll over into the next fiscal year, Lynch said. Additionally, the federal government has committed $4.5 million more for the 2018 budget, bringing the total to about $14.8 million. 

"As vessels serving the Port of Brunswick grow larger, it becomes more important for this port to receive sufficient federal dollars to maintain the channel at its full authorized depth," Lynch said. "We are happy to report that the upward trend in harbor maintenance funding appears to be continuing into the current fiscal year."

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