Charleston ports progress is encouraging, but serious challenges remain
BY RON BRINSON
Kudos to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and especially its Charleston District office. The agency has figured out how to fast-track the Charleston deepening project, pretty much promising the feasibility study phase will be completed in four years or less. The streamlined process will lop $5 million off the original $20 million cost. If “feasibility” is affirmed and Congress authorizes the project, our harbor’s main shipping channels could be deepened to 50 feet by 2020 or so.
In terms of the Corps’ performance, that’s very good news — and unprecedented. The agency clearly is looking for ways to be creative at Charleston. Industry observers just don’t see this open “pro-activity” at other ports.
“This project is now a case study, a front-runner, in how to streamline our studies,” said Lt. Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne, who commands the Corps’ Charleston District. Chamberlayne is considered among the Corps’ best and brightest. Before taking over the Charleston district a year ago, he earned a Ph.D in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. Now Dr. Chamberlayne is marching smartly to the orders and authority of the Corps civil works commanders, who for decades have tried to reform archaic authorization and funding processes. For the first time since forever, the Corps seems emboldened to expedite critically needed shipping-channel modernization projects.
Congressional leaders are fanning this breeze, and chief among them are U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. Graham, especially, seems to have an idea a minute about reforming a process that at best produces a federal navigation improvement project about once every 22 years. He and Clyburn lead a growing number of congressional “encouragers” telling the Corps and the Obama administration it’s OK to speed up national investments — and harbor-deepening projects at major ports like Charleston are definitely “investments.” If these new approaches work at Charleston — and they should — it’s all good news for the maritime industry at all U.S. ports. But let us remember the Panama Canal expansion opens in 2014, not 2020. Charleston should be able to hold on competitively for a few years. The current 45-foot channel drafts accommodate many ships drawing 48 feet. But State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome believes the deepening timetable can be compressed even more as the Corps’ best–and-brightest find additional efficiencies.
We might look back in a decade and declare that this was a turning-point period for the Port of Charleston. The hard fact, folks, is that our port came very close to losing its standing as a major competitor in the intermodal shipping business. Currently, the Port of Savannah handles almost twice as many containers as Charleston. A decade ago it was just the opposite. Savannah surpassed Charleston’s container volumes in 2005 and by 2009 had doubled Charleston volume.
It might have been worse. Charleston lost to Savannah 250,000 Maersk Lines containers in that 2005-2009 period. Some smaller-volume customers were angling toward Savannah, too, and in 2010, Maersk was preparing to move another 150,000 containers to Savannah. Newsome and his team designed new operating formats, and the commercial bleeding was stopped just in time. In an industry where positive momentum fuels long-term market-share successes, Charleston’s momentum for nearly a decade was curiously negative.
The Corps’ announcement Wednesday trumped some surprising good business news for our port. In the 2007 “bleed,” Charleston lost to Savannah the Maersk/Hamburg Sud Australia/NZ service. Now Savannah is losing that service to Charleston, effective next September. This renews “via Charleston” service for major exporters such as Michelin, which sells a lot of off-road tires in Australia and New Zealand.
Charleston’s growth pace is ahead of all other South Atlantic ports for the first five months of 2012 — 7.8 percent compared to Savannah’s 2.1 percent, Norfolk’s 4.3 percent, and Jacksonville’s 2.5 percent. Wilmington tracked 10.1 percent down in the January through May 2012 period.
So if the Port of Charleston can just hold on until the Corps delivers 50-foot channels, the advantages of a natural world-class harbor should renew and nurture its competitiveness for generations. But other infrastructure issues remain unresolved. Maybe the state can be inspired to address long-standing deficiencies as pro-actively and creatively as the Corps appears to be addressing the Charleston deepening project. I-26 from Charleston to Columbia is a nightmare, and that North Charleston rail problem yells out for the best of neighborhood–based planning.
So it is a good news cycle for the Port of Charleston. But recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint.
The Greater Charleston’s maritime industry and we taxpayers must be patient. And one lesson we should not forget: Savannah will never shrink away as a competitor no matter how deep the Charleston shipping channels become.
Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman and former associate editor of this newspaper, served as president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities 1979-86, and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986-2002. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.