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Cargo volumes flat year over year at port

Distribution & Logistics
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The port reported a significant decline in empty, imported containers coming through in fiscal year 2016. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

The Port of Charleston handled 1.097 million pier containers in fiscal year 2016 — from July 2015 to June — up a mere 0.2% from the year prior.

In the past 15 years, the highest levels were in 2005 when 1.134 million pier containers came through the port. Pier container volumes account for every box that comes through the port, regardless of size.

Port volumes were flat during the second quarter and down in the third and fourth quarters of the fiscal year as the world economy slowed, S.C. State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said during a board meeting last week.

Quarterly Comparison - FY2015-FY2016/S.C. State Ports Authority“As compared to last fiscal year when ports were growing 14-15%, that’s just not there right now. ... We’re not in a hypertensive growth environment anymore,” Newsome said.

Pier container volumes in June were nearly 89,000, compared to about 97,000 during the same time last year. June volumes were partially impacted by temporary, planned plant shutdowns at Mercedes-Benz and BMW plants. Companies sometimes close down for a short period of time for vacations, maintenance or other reasons.

Along with slowing world trade in China and Europe, port volumes were affected by a major deficit in imported, empty containers. Empty imports were down nearly 50% in fiscal year 2016, meaning around 29,000 fewer empty containers were imported this year compared to last year.

Pier Container Volumes-Loaded v. Empty/S.C. State Ports AuthorityNewsome said he is seeing empty import containers decline at ports across the Southeast. He expects companies might be reusing the same containers for imports and exports rather than bringing empty containers in. The port makes money for each container that comes through its terminals, empty or full.

“That’s the major deficit in our volume that we see,” Newsome said.

Loaded import containers were up 5% year-over-year, which Newsome called a bright spot. The growth was largely from the automotive and retails sectors.

Other FY16 highlights:

  • Fewer ships are expected to call on the port in the next fiscal year following the completion of the Panama Canal expansion. Bigger ships carrying more cargo will result in fewer port calls, Newsome said. Currently, 16 of the 26 shipping companies have vessels that were too large to fit through the Panama Canal prior to the expansion.
  • The S.C. Inland Port in Greer is on track to reach 100,000 rail lifts by the end of the calendar year, which is the third year since operations began there. Newsome did not expect the inland port to reach this record before five years.
  • The ports authority continues to study creating another inland port in Dillon County. Newsome said he expects to make a presentation to the board sometime this fall on whether to proceed and how much the project would cost.
  • The Port of Georgetown’s pier container volumes were down about 55% in fiscal year 2016. Newsome said the decline is due to depth limitations. He said the port does not plan to invest there going forward.

“It’s obvious we have a very limited market opportunity,” Newsome said. “It’s more limited everyday as water depth is less and ships are getting bigger. ... We need to work with the town up there ... and see what they want to do. ... Sooner rather than later, we need to decide what the future is.”

FY2016 Volume Results:



Percent change from FY15

Pier containers (total number of boxes, regardless of size)

1.097 million


TEUs (common industry measurement representing a 20-foot equivalent of a shipping container)

1.94 million


Charleston breakbulk pier tons






Georgetown pier tons



Cruise passengers



S.C. Inland Port rail moves



Charleston ships docked



Source: S.C. State Ports Authority

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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