The warm afternoon sun reflects off the Cooper River at the southern end of the old Navy base in North Charleston. Nearby, big dump trucks line an access road along the perimeter of a large metal containment wall that holds back the tide.
On the other side of this partially completed manmade wharf sits a large green and black excavator scooping dredge spoil from a barge and transferring it to the trucks. The material, largely made up of silt, sand and clay, is then dumped behind the metal barrier to help create a new land mass that will be part of a new port.
This scene plays out over roughly 240 times on an average day. It’s the latest step in the State Ports Auhtority’s drawn-out plan to expand its ship-handling capacity by adding a third container terminal.
The SPA plans to have the 280-acre Navy Base terminal open between 2018 and 2019, mirroring the projected timeline to deepen Charleston Harbor to 50 feet from 45.
The big project reflects the big shift by shippers to add longer, wider, heavier vessels to their fleets. The Port of Charleston is investing more than $1 billion to prepare for their arrival.
Vice President Joe Biden mentioned the importance of the SPA’s future terminal, coupled with the harbor deepening, when he visited Charleston last week. And earlier this month, shippers at the recent S.C. International Trade Conference on the Isle of Palms raised concerns whether East Coast ports are ready to handle the wave of big ships.
Industry experts say sluggish growth has carriers dispatching larger container vessels to the East Coast. At the same time, an expansion of the Panama Canal will enable these bigger ships to traverse the constrained waterway by around 2015.
But larger vessels create challenges. They mean more containers on the docks at any given time, forcing ports to look at how much space they’ll need. Industry experts have said the higher volume of goods will require ships to be tied up longer. Ports also will need more cranes, rail access and labor.
“It’s an issue for any port because the lead time is so great,” said Kent Gourdin, director of global logistics and transportation programs at the College of Charleston. “It takes a lot of time to build or expand a facility.”
The SPA says the Navy terminal is one of its most important tools in a campaign to ease concerns among shippers who feel some ports will not be adequately prepared to handle the mega-vessels.
Once fully completed, it will increase the port’s container-hand-ling capacity by about 50 percent, meaning the SPA would be able to handle the equivalent of 1.4 million 20-foot-long shipping containers a year.
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the maritime agency, said oceangoing trade is expected to increase, partly because of higher exports and partly because the growing population in the Southeast is driving more imports to the region.
“That trend creates a need for additional capacity at port terminals along with improved infrastructure on both the land side and the water side,” Newsome said.
The infrastructure issue was one of the big talking points at this month’s trade conference at Wild Dunes Resort. Paul Morin, head of U.S. transportation for sports apparel company Adidas, said unloading bigger vessels can mean landside delays.
“Berthing times for bigger vessels can be three days,” he said. “On the West Coast, when we are given an ETA for a Sunday arrival but we can’t get the box until Wednesday or Thursday, it’s very frustrating.”
That concern was echoed by Eric Sherman, vice president of imports for Family Dollar. He said the discount retailer has faced problems with delayed shipments in New York and Virginia ports.
“If basic ships and volumes are causing production problems at these terminals today, how will we get there tomorrow?” he asked.
The SPA’s future Navy Base terminal is the largest single project in the agency’s $1.3 billion spending plan to upgrade and add to its facilities. It also includes a 100-acre inland port to open next month in the Upstate, in addition to new electronic cargo-monitoring systems at its terminals.
Some experts say the new terminal is the most important. It will open in two phases. The first will have 171 acres of container yard with two ship berths. It’s expected to open as early as 2018. The second phase, which includes a third ship berth, will be completed as needed.
“It is going to be critical,” Gourdin of the college said. “We all just wish it could have been done earlier, but that is our ace in the hole. It will give capacity to see us through until we need some more, which we will.”
Future capacity would include the $5 billion port in Jasper County, a shared project between South Carolina and Georgia. Analysts have said the proposed port would be viable as early as 2025. The 1,500-acre project is still in the early planning stages.
For now, the larger focus is on the Port of Charleston.
The SPA for years has relied on its Wando Welch and North Charleston terminals to handle the bulk of its containerized cargo. The Navy Base project came about after the agency’s failed attempt more than a decade ago to build its massive Global Gateway container terminal on Daniel Island.
The future terminal has been taking shape since 2007. The initial work included $6 million to demolish nearly 40 buildings on the former base and other site clearing. Some of the demolished building materials will be used for construction of the terminal, officials said.
But progress has slowed, largely because the SPA determined during the last recession that it wouldn’t need the extra capacity in the near term.
Now the pace is picking up.
Much of the activity involves filling the 62-acre containment wall and prepping the adjacent landside areas for the first phase. It’s a $152 million project.
The process includes extracting the moisture from the fill material. Placing tons of dirt on top of the sediment accelerates the compression cycle, said James K. Van Ness, III, the SPA’s vice president of engineering.
“It takes a lot to consolidate the soil,” he said. “It will take six to 18 months because you’re trying to press all the water out.”
The last of the fill is expected to be installed in 2017, said Robert Mitchell, senior project manager for the SPA.
“At that time, we’ll already be working on paving portions of the container yard on top of the already placed fill,” Mitchell said. “We’ll have multiple stages of work going on at the same time: bringing in fill, building the container yard, buildings, wharf, etc.”
The terminal will also require the construction of a $250 million access road linking the waterfront site with Interstate 26 by way of an interchange near Exit 217. The state Department of Transportation is planning to start forming the roadway as early as 2015.
The terminal will also include rail access through a planned nearby intermodal yard to be operated by the state-run S.C. Public Railways.
Gourdin of the college said all that infrastructure will be essential to making the new terminal competitive.
“It’s a big puzzle,” he said. “It’s not just a harbor and the ports, it’s also about highways and good access to the ports.”
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.