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Charleston's port to spend $160M on newer, safer chassis fleet for truckers

Evergreen truck

A crane lifts a cargo container off the chassis of a truck at the new Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston. The State Ports Authority plans to start its own chassis pool with new equipment by next year. English Purcell/State Ports Authority/Provided

Charleston maritime officials are making another attempt at solving the chassis crisis facing South Carolina's truckers, with plans to spend $160 million on new equipment used to haul cargo boxes over highways.

The State Ports Authority plans to operate the new chassis pool, replacing a service that's been handled by Consolidated Chassis Management — a company formed in 2005 by shipping lines that call on U.S. ports.

The SPA's board approved the plan on April 24. The new chassis will be available at the port's container terminals, inland ports and at railroad terminals within South Carolina. The projected start day is a year from now.

Truckers, who hook the third-party chassis to their own vehicles, have long complained about the aging equipment they're forced to use that often lacks updated safety features.

The average CMC chassis is 14 years old, according to the company's website. In addition, the number of available chassis hasn't kept up with the growth in cargo nationwide.

The SPA's goal is to replace those chassis with newer models that have LED lights, anti-lock brakes and radial tires. The agency plans to lease or purchase about 13,000 of the cargo-hauling trailers to get the fleet up and running. The purchases will be financed with revenue from the pool's operations paying off the debt.

"We're aiming to have new chassis or significantly new chassis — less than five years old," said Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO.

Drivers who work the port welcomed the decision, said Rick Todd, head of the South Carolina Trucking Association.

"The equipment tendered to the motor carriers is, by and large, just plain old," Todd said.

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He added that the current setup can cut already slim profit margins when drivers "get hit with maintenance and repair invoices on equipment that’s not even theirs."

Todd also said the chassis shortage sometimes delays deliveries, forcing truckers to pay late fees "for no fault of their own."

CMC has said it is upgrading its national fleet, but change isn't coming fast enough for the SPA, Newsome said. A previous attempt by the agency and the Georgia Ports Authority to create a Southeast pool failed, in part, because Georgia wanted to rely on assurances the current fleet would be overhauled.

"We didn't want to do that," Newsome said. "We didn't see a clear path to that type of upgrade or a clear willingness to do it."

The SPA's latest program will be similar to a chassis pool that the Port of Virginia owns and operates. The newer chassis in that pool have led to a 50 percent reduction in over-the-road downtime. Up to a quarter of the chassis at the Port of Charleston have had some type of problem — from having a bad taillight to being completely out of commission — at any given time in recent years.

"The goal is to provide safe and road-ready chassis to the motor carriers servicing the Port of Virginia and the use of technology really helps in our effort," Arthur Ellermann, managing director of Hampton Roads Chassis Pool II, said in a statement. "Technology helps minimize downtime, gathers important data and allows us to make informed decisions on the usable life-cycle of the chassis in a pool environment."

Todd said truckers have historically had little support from shippers and chassis operators, and trying to manage "largely uncontrollable situations" is among the reasons many drivers are leaving the field.

"Nobody wants to pay what it takes to safely, compliantly and profitably hire a truck and driver," he said. "They just want them when they need them. It ain’t that simple."

Barbara Melvin, the SPA's chief operating officer, said the agency "has always focused on the plight of the motor carriers" that transport cargo in and out of Charleston's terminals.

"This is one more step toward our commitment to making sure they have a good experience when they're on our terminals," she said. "They can get a reliable chassis to move the box and make sure it's safe on the road."

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

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