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Diversifying cargo base boosts container volumes at port

Distribution & Logistics
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The port saw a record number of vehicles come through the Columbus Street Terminal in downtown Charleston in March. (Photo/Ryan Wilcox)

March was the strongest month ever for the S.C. Ports Authority in terms of container volume.

The Port of Charleston handled 200,000 TEUs — 20-foot equivalent container units — in March, up nearly 4% from March 2017, the latest port data show. The agency handled more than 1.6 million TEUs in the first nine months of fiscal year 2018, up 1.4% from the same time the year prior.

Click to view larger.Measuring boxes of any size, the port moved around 114,000 total pier containers in March, up 4.3% from a year ago. For fiscal 2018, the port handled more than 909,000 pier containers, up 1.9% from 2017.

“The record volumes achieved by our port in March reflect seasonally strong volume in all segments combined with the further deployment of big containerships to the U.S. East Coast,” Port CEO Jim Newsome said in a news release.

Newsome said spring traditionally yields strong cargo volumes. The port’s cargo base continues to diversify with more product now coming from northeast Asia than from Europe.

“The remainder of the year will hopefully be strong,” Newsome said.

The port also saw a record number of vehicles come through the Columbus Street Terminal in downtown Charleston. The port handled more than 28,000 vehicles in March, the majority of which were BMWs produced at the automaker’s Greer plant.

The port’s vehicle volumes are expected to increase when Volvo Cars exports a portion of its S.C.-made S60 sedans. Volvo is on track to begin building the vehicles at its Berkeley County campus by the end of the year.

Infrastructure investments

The port opened its second inland port last month. The new distribution hub in Dillon County is served by CSX. It is poised to capture more cargo business for the port. Inland Port Greer, which is served by Norfolk Southern, handled 10,612 rail moves in March.

Newsome said the port is awaiting news this month on whether it will receive federal dollars for the next phase of the Charleston Harbor deepening project. The next contract is for deepening up to the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. The port needs $90 million in federal money every year for the next three years to keep the project on schedule.

The port also is near the end of its Wando terminal and berth renovation. For more than two years, one of the terminal’s three berths has been unusable at different times because of the construction project. The project involved strengthening the wharf to handle the wear and tear caused by the expected bigger containerships bumping into its sides.

“It was a huge challenge to keep business going well with one-third of our berth capacity out at Wando,” Newsome said.

The port now plans to improve and densify the inside of the Wando terminal, enabling more containers to stack within the existing space. Work will include buying more cranes, raising some existing cranes, creating a new traffic patterns for truck drivers and stacking containers closer together on the terminal.

Work continues on the $700 million Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal, a greenfield container terminal in North Charleston set to open by early 2021.

The port is in the process of issuing $300 million in revenue bonds in June and also applying for a $300 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act federal loan over the next year to help pay for those capital improvements, among other projects.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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