With the girders up and the concrete down, a project that aims to keep truck traffic off local roads is moving toward completion by the time the State Ports Authority opens its new container terminal in North Charleston.
The $330 million port access road, a joint project of the authority and the state's Department of Transportation, will provide a direct link between Interstate 26 and the Port of Charleston's new Leatherman Terminal, scheduled to open in 2021 at the city's former Navy base.
A requirement under the authority's permit to build the terminal, the access road is a key piece of a long-range plan to help ease traffic congestion around the port's terminals. The new road will help separate cargo-carrying trucks from highway commuters and residential traffic.
"The road will minimize the blending of port-related trucks with residential traffic in the surrounding communities and maximize the safety and efficiency of cargo traveling to and from port facilities," said Jim Newsome, the authority's president and CEO. "The idea is not to put a lot of container traffic on the roads in North Charleston."
It also will help link to a new rail yard the state's Palmetto Railways is building on former Navy base property, where cargo containers will be moved between trains and trucks. The authority expects 5.2 million containers will move through its terminals by 2035, and it hopes trains will move at least 20 percent of them.
Separately, the authority has announced plans to barge some cargo from its Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant to reduce truck traffic there.
The port access road has been discussed for more than a decade, but its progress accelerated in 2016 when the state picked a joint venture of Fluor Corp. and The Lane Construction Corp. to design and build the project.
The state Legislature has set aside $200 million for the road, while the authority will pay the rest.
"The project has reached several major milestones in 2018 and is set for a busy 2019," said project spokeswoman Julie Hussey.
Contractors recently placed 45 concrete girders over the Spruill Avenue and Meeting Street intersection to support a ramp that will lead to and from the interstate. Concrete has been placed on two segments of the ramp — roughly 200 feet of the eventual 1,041-foot bridge.
Workers also recently wrapped up a 19-month project to drill 117 shafts along the road's length, mostly for columns supporting the new ramps.
The road and port projects overcame concerns that they would disrupt quality of life in nearby residential areas when the authority agreed to pay a little more than $4 million for affordable housing, education and other economic initiatives. The road construction team also has hired workers from the neighborhoods.
"This area down here is really going to grow, just because of the port and the (rail) facility," Omar Muhammad, president of the nonprofit Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, said this summer. The alliance is working with neighborhoods to identify how the money should be spent.
“We’re trying to prepare for the growth, and enable residents to participate," he said.
In 2016, Palmetto Railways — a division of the state's Commerce Department — agreed to pay another $4 million to build a new recreational facility for the neighborhoods and fund other initiatives.
"We've worked with neighboring communities and have taken many of their suggestions and incorporated them into our plans," said Jeff McWhorter, the short-line railroad's president and CEO. “As part of being a good neighbor, we will be providing educational and employment opportunities, and we’ve taken measures to minimize air, noise and vibration impacts.”
The port access road also has been a boon to Fluor as it focuses on shoring up its infrastructure division.
"There is a pent-up demand for infrastructure, and we see significant growth in that market," David Seaton, Fluor's chairman and CEO, told investors during a conference call.
"I can't over-emphasize the importance of things like the Charleston port project, which proved to us we could be competitive on that (mid-level) project," Seaton said, adding that larger-scale projects can be too time-consuming due to overwhelming regulations. "I think in the United States, that's where the market is going to be."