Charleston port might consider barges to move containers from Wando Terminal to North Charleston

Aerial view of the State Ports Authority’s Wando Terminal in Mount Pleasant. Buy this photo

Imagine a container ship arrives at Wando Terminal, carrying cargo destined for trains in North Charleston. Instead of moving those containers via the interstate one truck at a time, they’re loaded on a barge for the trip across the harbor.

As the city and the State Ports Authority plan for the opening of an intermodal rail yard on the former Navy Base, and look at ways to reduce truck traffic, barges could be one potential solution.

“We’d like to consider the idea of an inter-harbor container barge,” SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome told members of North Charleston City Council on Tuesday night. “We have to look at creative ways of moving containers within the harbor, and to this ICTF (intermodal container transfer facility).”

Currently, many of the shipping containers that arrive at Wando Terminal, on ships that can carry thousands at a time, are trucked across the Wando and Cooper rivers on Interstate 526 to existing rail yards in North Charleston.

With a new $800 million port terminal expected to open on the south end of the former Navy Base in 2018, a planned rail yard on a different section of the base property will be the destination for containers from that terminal and existing terminals in Mount Pleasant and North Charleston.

The SPA, North Charleston and S.C. Public Railways have agreed to conduct a major traffic and transportation study in the meantime, to find the best ways to meet the needs of the new port with the least impact on North Charleston traffic and city residents.

The idea of moving shipping containers by barge has been around for years, but has not been studied in-depth by the SPA.

Coastal Conservation League officials have repeatedly suggested the inter-harbor barge idea.

CCL Director Dana Beach suggested in a 2009 editorial that port growth requires: “A freight rail plan that serves the new and existing terminals, including a strategy to move containers by barge from the Wando to an intermodal site.”

And years earlier, the Carolina Linkage company, or CaroLinks, proposed a plan that involved moving cargo by barges from the Port of Charleston to Lake Marion. The company abandoned that plan in 2006, saying that it could not afford the lengthy and costly permitting process dealing with the impact of barge traffic on the Cooper River.

Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is contesting the SPA’s plan for a Charleston cruise ship terminal, said the container barge idea is worth considering.

“It would certainly take a lot of trucks off of (Interstate) 526,” he said.

With North Charleston residents concerned about truck traffic, environmental groups concerned about pollution from trucks, and the shipping industry worried about a predicted shortage of truck drivers, it looks like the SPA also thinks barges are an idea worth considering.

“We will be active players in finding professional solutions to these issues,” Newsome told City Council members.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.

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