The State Ports Authority will spend $61.4 million on new cranes and other equipment to keep up with record-setting cargo at the Port of Charleston's busiest shipping terminal, the agency's board said Wednesday.
The money will pay for four supersized ship-to-shore cranes to load and unload containers from big ships traveling through the expanded Panama Canal to the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.
The terminal, which recently reopened its third berth, will have 15 of the 155-foot-tall cranes in operation by the end of 2020.
Jim Newsome, the port's authority's president and CEO, said it takes five cranes to efficiently move cargo to and from ships that can carry up to 14,000 containers each. The new cranes will let the terminal serve three big ships at the same time, with enough reach to handle a vessel carrying up to 18,000 containers.
The purchase comes as the port continues to set monthly cargo records, including 188,585 containers measured in 20-foot increments moving through its terminals in November. That total beats the previous record for the month set in 2016 and is 15.3 percent higher than in November 2017.
Newsome said increased tariffs that were scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 caused many port customers to ship their cargo early to avoid the extra import charges. Those tariffs have now been delayed for at least 90 days as trade talks continue between the United States and China.
"The whole tariff thing has created a lot of uncertainty," Newsome said, adding that cargo volumes are strong for December — with the port recording its busiest week last week — but will likely fall off after the Chinese New Year on Feb. 5. because much of the cargo from Asia has already been shipped.
"We just don't know," he said of the impacts tariffs will have going forward. "The first calendar quarter of 2019 ... is much more uncertain in terms of outlook."
Exports of Upstate-produced BMWs declined for the fifth consecutive month since China imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S.-made vehicles in July. The Greer automaker exported 14,889 cars from Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston last month — a 12.6 percent drop from November 2017.
In the five months since the increased Chinese tariffs began, BMW exports have fallen 19.3 percent.
The trade war has taken a financial toll on the carmaker, which said it will lose $300 million this year due to the tariffs. However, U.S. officials said this week that China — BMW's biggest export market — will scale back the tariffs from 40 percent to 15 percent as trade talks continue. China had not confirmed the tariff reduction as of early Wednesday night.
Last month's drop in exports didn't affect overall production at the Upstate campus, which was slightly ahead of last year's total because of to increased U.S. sales of the sport-utility vehicles made at the plant.
Around the Southeast
Southeast ports that compete with the Port of Charleston for cargo reported mixed results in November.
The Port of Virginia handled 239,890 containers — just 280 shy of last year's total. The lack of growth was due to the port limiting imports of empty containers to free up space at its terminals and improve truck service during the typically busy month.
"This effort is creating the room we need during construction to concentrate on moving loaded boxes," said John Reinhart, the port's executive director.
The Georgia Ports Authority saw 11.4 percent growth in November, handling 344,506 cargo boxes. The Port of Savannah is on track to handle a record 4.36 million containers this year.
"Cargo expansion related to growth in inland markets, as well as increased demand right here in the U.S. Southeast, have shifted the global logistics arena in Savannah's favor," said Griff Lynch, the Georgia authority's executive director.