Cargo shippers, known for their insistence on reliability and efficiency, might seek alternatives to the Port of Charleston in the time it will take to repair the Wando River bridge, with analysts admitting there will be short-term pain but probably little long-term damage.
"Shippers understand the Port of Charleston is doing everything it can to make things easy for them," said Mark Vitner, a Charlotte-based senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co., adding any delays "are not a reflection of the port's operating environment."
"It's an inconvenience, but it's not policy induced," he said.
Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, thinks closing the James B. Edwards Bridge will create economic problems throughout the logistics industry. .
"It is hard to imagine how this will not be a significant challenge to carriers' profitability, driver pay and customer satisfaction," he said, adding that the trucking industry's challenges with efficiency and profitability are "difficult at best."
"This can only add to the difficulty," he said.
The S.C. Department of Transportation said Wednesday it's not certain why one of the cables that supports the bridge structure snapped and estimated repairs should be completed by June 11. In addition to the ruptured cable, the DOT said it found corrosion on some of the bridge's other cables.
The State Ports Authority has adjusted the gate hours at Wando Welch Terminal, where the bridge serves as the main traffic artery for truckers to reach Interstate 26. The authority will open gates at 3 a.m. and keep them open until 8 p.m.
Wando Welch, the port's main container terminal, averages about 325 truck visits per hour on normal days.
Christy Hall, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, said the authority "has made tremendous adjustments" to reduce traffic impacts.
The authority is still developing a plan to deal with the bridge closure, and spokeswoman Erin Dhand said the maritime agency won't have any new announcements until Thursday at the earliest.
BMW, which imports parts through Charleston for vehicles it builds at its Spartanburg County plant, said the bridge closure won't affect operations other than forcing truckers to take a longer route to the Norfolk Southern rail terminal in North Charleston.
"The port is expanding its hours of operation, which will allow our trucks to have additional transport time in and out of the port," BMW spokesman Steve Wilson said. "Our inbound logistics and transportation teams have been in communication with the authority and Norfolk Southern about the situation."
Most cargo shippers have little patience with delays. In 2015, they diverted cargo away from West Coast ports after repeated union labor shutdowns slowed freight movements. They've threatened to do the same to East Coast ports this coming year if a new contract with the International Longshoremen's Association isn't ratified soon.
Ken Riley, president of the ILA's local chapter in Charleston, could not be reached for comment Wednesday and it's not clear whether the I-526 bridge closure has had any impact to the union's ability to provide labor to the cargo terminal.
The potential for delays is coming at a time when seaports in Charleston and elsewhere are handling record cargo volumes brought in by large container ships traversing the Panama Canal. Extended gate hours is one way to handle the surge, but the additional labor costs pose another problem for port operators who are reluctant to pass the expense on to shippers for fear of driving them to some place that's cheaper.
Todd of the Columbia-based trucking association said he's also worried shipping lines will charge truckers for late shipments that are beyond their control.
"We beseech the equipment providers and steamship lines not to charge truckers for late fees or pick-ups and equipment return," he said. "We are confident that the powers that be are doing everything they can."