A Maersk vessel sails through Charleston Harbor after calling at the South Carolina Port Authority’s Wando Welch Terminal. (Photo courtesy of SCPA)
A Maersk vessel sails through Charleston Harbor after calling at the South Carolina Port Authority’s Wando Welch Terminal. (Photo courtesy of SCPA)

Recent record container volumes through the Port of Charleston aren’t enough to satisfy James I. “Jim” Newsome III, president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Ports Authority, who has loftier longer-term objectives well in 20-20 sight.
“We had a good year, and obviously I’m happy about that,” Newsome said, referring to the all-time-high 2.14 million 20-foot-equivalent container units that moved through the port in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2017.

“But,” Newsome continued in a conversation with the American Journal of Transportation, “it’s a long-term business, so we need multiple good years to be successful. I think we’re on a sound footing right now. I think that we’ve accomplished a lot, and I think we’ve got a good future.”

Among happenings shaping a bright future for SCPA are major improvements making 35-year-old Wando Welch Terminal already able to efficiently accommodate mega-boxships; building of an all-new container terminal that is to handle its first cargo by 2020; deepening of Charleston’s harbor to 52 feet, also by 2020; and economic development extending beyond Port of Charleston gates, including at inland terminals.

On the favorable statistical front, it not only bears note that the container volume in the recently completed fiscal year was up 10 percent over the TEU count for the preceding 12-month period, but also that, according to figures supplied by SCPA, the Port of Charleston experienced the highest total containerized cargo volume growth rate from 2011 to 2016 among top 10 U.S. containerports – an impressive 45 percent.

SCPA and the State of South Carolina are investing heavily to maintain this trend, with a combined $2.15 billion in capital expenditures through 2021.

Getting the biggest share of $268 million of SCPA capital investment in the current fiscal year is the Wando Welch Terminal enhancement, with $86.3 million (including $10.8 million from a federal grant) going for completion of wharf refurbishment and related undertakings.

The wharf project is slated to be done by March 2018, but, even without the fortified wharves in place, the Wando Welch Terminal handled its first 13,000-plus-TEU-capacity ship in late spring.

Indeed, Newsome said it makes accommodation of mega-containerships and setting the TEU mark all the more impressive considering that the wharf work has meant one of the three Wando Welch Terminal berths has essentially been out of use at any given time.

“We certainly appreciate our customers and staff in working through this time,” said Newsome, who took the SCPA helm in September 2009 after serving as an ocean carrier executive for three decades, the latest dozen years as president of Hapag-Lloyd (America) Inc.

For those Wando Welch berths, SCPA last year bought two new cranes with 155 feet of lift height, sufficient for reaching across nine containers stacked on megavessel decks. Two more such cranes are to be acquired next year, while the process has begun for raising five existing cranes to similar height.

Of the prospect of having a total of nine cranes able to lift across nine containers stacked on decks of two 13,000-TEU ships at the same time, Newsome commented,

“We’re pretty excited about that.”

Meanwhile, an advanced gate system has just entered its second year of operation at Wando Welch, dealing with big-ship volumes the previous manual system could not have handled.

Newsome said the terminal is now handling about 6,000 truck moves per day. That compares with the old system’s capability to handle about 4,000 daily truck moves.

A new terminal operating system from Tideworks Technology is to be implemented at the Wando Welch Terminal by mid-2018.

“Things are good on the technology side,” Newsome said. “Technology is important, but what makes the port work is the people, and I think that’s where this port really excels. We’ve just got great people across the board.”

While the automated gate and terminal operating systems allow efficient handling of greater truck traffic, the share of boxes going to and from the Wando Welch facility by train continues to rise as well, with 25 percent of containers now moving via intermodal rail.

Recognizing that, even with the improvements, the Wando Welch Terminal won’t be sufficient to handle future Port of Charleston demand, SCPA has simultaneously been advancing development of the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal on nearly 300 acres at the former U.S. Navy base site along the Cooper River in North Charleston.

With a capacity of 13,208 TEUS, the OOCL France becomes the largest containership to call Charleston as it is worked June 5 at the Wando Welch Terminal. (Photo by SkyView Aerial Solutions)
With a capacity of 13,208 TEUS, the OOCL France becomes the largest containership to call Charleston as it is worked June 5 at the Wando Welch Terminal. (Photo by SkyView Aerial Solutions)

With a total cost of more than $1 billion, HLT, as the project is known for short, represents the only new permitted container terminal on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts. At full build-out, targeted for 2030, HLT is to increase overall container-handling capacity at the Port of Charleston by 50 percent, but its first phase is progressing on schedule toward opening by mid-2020. During the current fiscal year, SCPA is putting $54 million into finalizing the fill phase of HLT, importing high-quality rock from Canada, and the South Carolina Department of Transportation has begun building the access road to the terminal. State-backed Palmetto Railways is building an adjacent intermodal container transfer facility.

“All of that, along with the harbor deepening, should come to pass in the middle of 2020,” Newsome said.

Like the new terminal, the harbor deepening has been in the works for quite some time but is now taking shape.

“I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of our harbor-deepening project,” Newsome said. “We finished the study in six years and four months, which is fast for such a study.” moved quickly to construction phase

In May, the harbor project was named by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as one of six new starts and it gained $17.5 million in federal construction financing, to go along with $16.1 million in federal operations and maintenance money and $300 million in state funding that had already been set aside. The project’s largest construction contract is to be let this fall.

“We’re going to achieve the deepest harbor on the East Coast, and I think we can do it by the end of this decade, at least the portion up to the Wando Terminal. The next piece is the piece up to the Navy base terminal [HLT].”

SCPA also is building upon inland terminal successes.

About 220 miles northwest of Charleston via Interstate 26 and linked to the port by double-stacked Norfolk Southern trains, Inland Port Greer, which opened in October 2013 just off I-85, exceeded expectations by reaching 120,000 rail lifts in the last fiscal year.

“That was exceptional,” Newsome said. “I thought we would one day do that. I certainly didn’t think we would do it within the course of three years’ time.”

In March, ground was broken for a second SCPA inland facility, this one along I-95 in Dillon County, about 150 miles north-northeast of Charleston. Inland Port Dillon, to be served by CSX rail, is scheduled to open in early 2018.

Greer, by the way, is home to BMW’s largest vehicle-making plant in the world, and officials this summer have announced plans for a major expansion of the facility, which turned out its first car in 1994.

BMW is anticipated to this year export about 270,000 Greer-made vehicles on roll-on/roll-off vessels from the Port of Charleston’s Columbus Street Terminal – one of several indicators to which Newsome pointed in explaining the essential role the port authority plays in economic development endeavors in the Palmetto State. (By today, SCPA impact on the state is certain to far exceed the $53 billion in annual economic activity presented in a 2015 study by the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business.)

The Volvo Group is slated to start production next year in Berkeley County, about 30 miles northwest of Charleston, which should bring an increase in container volumes as well as roll-on/roll-off exports.

And Samsung Group is to soon begin making washers and dryers at a former Caterpillar plant site in Newberry, some 150 miles northwest of Charleston.

Other major companies named by SCPA as participating in recent economic development in the Palmetto State include: Dollar Tree Inc., with its newly opened 1.5 million-square-foot distribution hub in Cowpens; Harbor Freight Tools, with its recently expanded distribution facility in Dillon; and plastics transloader Frontier Logistics LP, which is among companies looking to export resins via distribution facilities in the Charleston area, having announced in May plans for a $30 million, 100,000-square-foot distribution center in North Charleston.

“States in the Southeast own and operate the ports because they’re really an integral part of the economic development machinery in the state,” Newsome said. “I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of that.”