Charleston port’s new gate system still vexing truckers, causing delays

A new $20 million gate system at the port’s Wando Welch Terminal requires truckers to punhc in a numerical code. The switch to the automated system has been causing delays.

As traffic problems continue to trouble the State Ports Authority’s largest cargo facility, truckers say they are losing money every time they visit Wando Welch Terminal and are considering adding a surcharge to customers’ bills to make up for production losses.

“We have to give the ports authority the benefit of the doubt and believe they are doing everything they can, but obviously it’s not working,” said Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association. “We have to get this fixed because it’s hurting the truckers that keep this port moving.”

Todd said traffic backups on Long Point Road and U.S. Interstate 526 heading into the Mount Pleasant terminal have been common in the month since the SPA installed an automated gate system at Wando Welch. The latest delay occurred Tuesday, when an unplanned system outage shut down operations for about 30 minutes.

“During that time, port-related traffic was queued in an orderly fashion allowing for the flow of traffic and access to/from businesses on Long Point Road,” said SPA spokeswoman Erin Dhand, who added traffic was flowing smoothly by mid-afternoon.

“We had already planned to offer extended gates tonight and tomorrow night, and we expect to be caught up on transactions from today’s issue by 4 p.m.,” Dhand said.

The SPA is averaging about 500 transactions — that is, a truck dropping off or picking up a container — each hour during peak times at Wando Welch.

Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO, was not available Tuesday. Newsome previously told The Post and Courier that the gate system will gain efficiency as people get used to using it.

The $20 million automated system requires truckers to check in electronically before arriving at Wando Welch. Once at the terminal’s gate, truckers type in a code number at a kiosk to receive a computer-generated routing slip showing where to pick up or drop off cargo. Cameras then scan the truck’s license plate, chassis and container, which are viewed on computer screens by checkers and mechanics an a nearby office.

Traffic backups appear to be happening at the terminal’s entrance and exit points, Todd said.

“Once the truckers get through the gates, things work fairly well,” he said. “But outside the gates, things don’t seem to be getting any better.”

Emails obtained by The Post and Courier show some trucking companies are “fighting, cajoling, bribing our drivers every day” to get them to pick up containers at Wando Welch, one of the least profitable routes even when things are running smoothly, Todd said.

“This continual mess (I’m trying to be polite) ... is costing us money, loss of revenue and a tremendous amount of stress and added work by all of our employees,” the owner of one Charleston-based trucking company wrote in an email. “Our customers are getting tired of being told their boxes are not going to be delivered tomorrow morning ... because we cannot get them all out today.”

A manager at another trucking firm said in an email that she is “hearing lots of complaints (from other carriers too) about issues at the Wando and getting off the terminal.”

One company owner said in an email that SPA officials are too concerned about boosting cargo volumes “and won’t get their hands or feet dirty getting out in the trenches to see what is going on.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the line is backing up outside the portals, of which there are only two in and two out,” the owner wrote. “So guess where the problem is?”

Some trucking firms are considering a surcharge to compensate for the money they are losing at Wando Welch, Todd said, but they fear that such a fee “will strain relationships with customers” or that customers will switch to another trucking company.

Todd said trucking companies are worried about the SPA’s planned rollout of the new gate system at its North Charleston container terminal beginning next month, especially as problems persist at Wando Welch.

“This is an untenable situation and I really feel for the carriers,” Todd said. “This is lost opportunity for the truckers — money they will never get back.”

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_