A day after a new gate system unexpectedly shut down, creating traffic backups at the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant, State Ports Authority officials said Wednesday they’re working to improve efficiency.
But they also said they need help from truckers to make things run more smoothly.
“We’re not going to accept where we are today as the new normal,” Barbara Melvin, the SPA’s senior vice president of operations and terminals, said of delays at the maritime agency’s largest terminal.
Wando Welch is handling unprecedented cargo volumes since the automated system was installed a month ago, with truckers picking up or dropping off roughly 4,800 cargo boxes on Tuesday. SPA officials said they expect 5,000 transactions a day eventually will be the norm.
However, truckers are complaining that there are long waits to enter the terminal and it is taking too long to move through the facility. Truckers can spend up to 1½ hours getting into and out of Wando Welch — something known as “turn times.” Such transactions used to take between 45 minutes and an hour.
“I’m not satisfied with the turn times,” said Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO. “We have provided exceptional turn times historically. That’s been our calling card for them, and I’m proud of that. We’ve got to get our turn times back where they should be. I really think we’re pulling every lever that we can to make that happen.”
Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, said this week that truckers are losing money because of the long wait times at Wando Welch. Some trucking companies are thinking of adding surcharges to customers’ bills to cover losses associated with the terminal’s delays.
“We have to get this fixed because it’s hurting the truckers that keep this port moving,” Todd said.
Wando Welch is busier, in part, because two big ships carrying up to 8,500 cargo boxes each moved their weekly calls from the smaller North Charleston Terminal to the larger Mount Pleasant hub.
A bigger problem, Newsome said, is that most truckers are arriving at the terminal at the same time — between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. — even though Wando Welch is open 12 hours each weekday and seven hours on Saturdays.
“We need to find a way to spread the volumes out over more time in the day and get better use of our weekend gate times,” Newsome said, adding that the SPA needs to better promote the off-peak periods to truckers.
“It’s just a process of producing facts and figures and saying: ‘Here’s the opportunity. We have this underutilized capacity, and if you choose to use it it’s going to be helpful to all of us.’”
Michele Adams, owner of the Liquid Box trucking company in North Charleston and president of the Charleston Motor Carriers Association, said it would be difficult to spread truckers’ visits throughout the day. The reason is that most of the drivers visiting Wando Welch during peak times are starting their workday several hours away in the Upstate or Charlotte, she said.
“This has never been a problem before, I don’t know why it is now,” Adams said.
She said the board of the motor carriers group is meeting Thursday to discuss Wando Welch and how the group can work with the SPA to improve traffic flow at the terminal.
“We’re willing to work with the port any way we can to make it happen,” Adams said.
Other considerations include adding more kiosks where truckers check into the terminal and extending gate hours. Melvin said more hours will only work if truckers take advantage of them.
“We’re going to have to affect as much behavior on arrivals as we can,” she said.
As a last resort, Newsome said, the SPA might have to enact a system where truckers make appointments to pick up or drop off cargo at Wando Welch.
In the meantime, the automated gate system “is getting better day by day,” Newsome said, and the SPA will continue to work with the state Department of Transportation and Mount Pleasant police to minimize traffic on Long Point Road and Interstate 526, the roads leading into Wando Welch.
The SPA plans to install the automated system at its North Charleston Terminal in August. The system uses computers and cameras to move truckers through the terminal as port workers view the action in a nearby control room.
And Newsome said he and his staff will continue to work onsite at Wando Welch to make sure things get better.
“We are very concerned about the truckers and their livelihood and their interest in being part of this port community,” Newsome said. “The good news is that it’s still a great place to be a trucker in this port community because we have historically provided a great product. And we’ll get back to that.”
Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_