The North Carolina State Ports Authority’s Port of Wilmington is forcefully positioning to be a port of choice for productive U.S. Southeast calls of containerships carrying as many as 10,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units of cargo.

Thanks to a just-expanded turning basin, buttressed by on-terminal facilities for handling of temperature-controlled cargos and wood pellets, as well as a new intermodal rail link, and with additional post-Panamax cranes soon to follow, the Port of Wilmington is making a bold statement to the shipping community.

Since Paul J. Cozza, a former senior vice president of Maersk Line, came aboard in April 2014 as NCSPA’s executive director, progress has been advancing in rapid-fire succession.

North Carolina State Ports Authority Executive Director Paul J. Cozza sees the Port of Wilmington poised for its best years ever. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)
North Carolina State Ports Authority Executive Director Paul J. Cozza sees the Port of Wilmington poised for its best years ever. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)

Consider this. In just a few short weeks from mid-July to September: North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and CSX Corp. brass were at the port July 19 to announce Wilmington’s first intermodal rail service in three decades;

An 8,200-TEU-capacity containership on Aug. 7 became the first vessel of its size to call the port, taking advantage of a just-finished wider turning basin;

Port of Wilmington Cold Storage on Aug. 26 handled its first shipment through its new 101,000-square-foot chilled facility adjacent to docks; and

Via another private investment, Enviva Partners LP was looking to a September opening for its two-domed wood pellet export facility on the port.

Here are some details of what Cliff Pyron, NCSPA’s senior manager for external affairs, aptly described as “the busiest time ever at North Carolina ports.”

The rail shuttle service, dubbed the Queen City Express, is designed to efficiently move double-stacked containers on existing CSX tracks between the Port of Wilmington and the CSX intermodal terminal in Charlotte, about 200 miles west-northwest of the port.

North Carolina’s governor called the service “a game-changer,” and Nikolaj Jessen-Klixbull, vice president of procurement for North America operations of Maersk Line was similarly enthused, telling the American Journal of Transportation, “For us, this is a great opportunity. It could be a game-changer. It gives us a new gateway and brings more competition to the market.”

Cozza told AJOT he anticipates that, by 2020, CSX also will institute daily service between the Port of Wilmington and a megahub the Class I railroad firm announced in July it is building in Rocky Mount, about 150 miles due north of the port.

While such intermodal connections will facilitate getting cargo on and off the port via economical, congestion-resilient rail, the expanded turning basin will make it easy for bigger ships to get into Port of Wilmington berths.

Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp.’s YM Unity, with a capacity of 8,200 twenty-foot-equivalent units, avails itself of the newly expanded turning basin at the Port of Wilmington, becoming the largest containership to call the North Carolina port.
Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp.’s YM Unity, with a capacity of 8,200 twenty-foot-equivalent units, avails itself of the newly expanded turning basin at the Port of Wilmington, becoming the largest containership to call the North Carolina port.

The $30 million widening of the 42-foot-deep Cape Fear River turning basin to 1,400 feet from 1,200 feet, allowing accommodation of containerships with capacity of as many as 10,000 TEUs, was impressively completed in just six months, well-timed with opening of the expanded Panama Canal. When Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp.’s 1,101-foot-long, 8,200-TEU YM Unity made its Aug. 7 arrival after transiting the new Panama locks, the CKYHE Alliance vessel became the largest containership ever to call the North Carolina port, which sits 25 miles upriver from open Atlantic Ocean waters.

As for Port of Wilmington quay facilities, plans call for extending the current single container berth to create two post-Panamax ship berths, each 1,150 feet in length, by as early as December 2017. The container terminal’s four existing post-Panamax cranes are to be joined by two or three additional similar units, also as part of a $100 million infrastructure enhancement program.

Wilmington’s cranes are well-known for their productivity, with state port employees at the controls, working in coordination with on-terminal International Longshoremen’s Association labor, averaging 46 moves an hour per crane.

Cozza also noted the port’s new terminal operating system and lack of congestion at truck gates. He cited average turn times of 18 minutes for a single move and 32 minutes for a two-way move encompassing both drop-off and pick-up.

“Our competitive advantage is service,” Cozza said, “and that’s what we want to continue to provide.

“The North Carolina State Ports Authority has significant capacity to grow as well as operational efficiencies to keep cargo moving and congestion at bay,” Cozza said. “Annually, we seamlessly handle 300,000 TEUs and 4 million tons of bulk cargo, which is only half of our overall capacity. With new infrastructure and innovations in the next two years, carriers seeking cost-effective and efficient solutions will find even greater results at North Carolina’s ports.”

The four post-Panamax cranes already in place at the Port of Wilmington are to be augmented by two or three similar units as part of a $100 million infrastructure plan. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)
The four post-Panamax cranes already in place at the Port of Wilmington are to be augmented by two or three similar units as part of a $100 million infrastructure plan. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)

A closer look at NCSPA statistics shows the total tons of cargo moved through the 284-acre Port of Wilmington at 4,392,076 in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2016, a 5.5 percent decline from the preceding 12-month period, but breakbulk volume rising a full 16 percent on a year-over-year basis, to 323,956 tons. Containerized cargo volume at Wilmington in the recently ended fiscal year was 284,721 TEUs, slipping 4.3 percent from a record 297,612 TEUs in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2015 – a figure up a whopping 17.9 percent from the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014.

The Port of Wilmington enjoys a favorable balance with exports – led by forest products – accounting for 52 percent of activity and imports – led by animal feeds – representing 48 percent of volume.

Meanwhile, total cargo tonnage moving through NCSPA’s breakbulk- and bulk-oriented Port of Morehead City, about 100 miles to the northeast of Wilmington, reached 1,737,205 for the 12-month period ended June 30, 2016, up 17.2 percent from the year-earlier timeframe.

Port officials point out with pride that the Wilmington and Morehead City marine terminals, along with NCSPA inland facilities in Charlotte and Greensboro, combine to annually contribute $14 billion to the Tar Heel State’s economy.

NCSPA leadership also is proud of public-private partnerships that have brought about such developments as the new cold storage and wood pellet facilities on the Port of Wilmington property.

With the late August arrival of three truckloads of frozen turkey parts, the Port of Wilmington Cold Storage’s chilled facility received its first shipment, which was promptly containerized and put on a ship to Asia. Temperature-controlled cargos moving through the Port of Wilmington include exported poultry and pork, while seafood and fresh fruits are among imports.

Whereas many ports have abundant cold storage facilities near port property, the Wilmington installation is rare in that it is on the port itself.

A separate private investment, this one by Enviva Partners LP, is putting on the port a wood pellet export facility with two large storage domes and a berth-link conveyor system. It is anticipated to be the hub for 1 million tons of annual exports to Europe. (See article on page 9)