New opportunity sails in for terminal Deal may bring containers, other cargo to SPA’s Columbus St. site

An aerial view of the State Ports Authority’s Columbus Street Terminal on peninsular Charleston.

The Columbus Street Terminal, primarily the export base for BMW automobiles headed overseas, could become the home for new container cargo operations under a plan the State Ports Authority’s board of directors heard Wednesday.

The board is expected to vote next month to accept bids on the project, which would renovate the mid-peninsula terminal to handle between 600 and 800 containers — those 20-foot metal boxes cargo ships haul overseas — each week. The work would be done to accommodate an unidentified vendor and the operations, mostly imports, would be in addition to work that already takes place at the terminal.

Along with containers, the vendor would bring between 500 and 1,000 vehicles and about 500 tons of breakbulk, or noncontainerized cargo, such as timber and steel products, to the terminal during its weekly visit. The cargo would arrive via a “roll-on, roll-off,” or Ro-Ro, ship where containers are stored on deck and other cargo is transported in the vessel’s belly.

“This is attractive cargo for us,” said Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO. “There’s a small number of these Ro-Ro containerships. They’re a hybrid-type ship. So, rather than put them in a container terminal, they wanted to be in a project cargo terminal where there are warehouses.”

If approved, renovations at the Columbus Street Terminal could be completed by the first of next year. The board did not say how much the project is expected to cost.

Much of the infrastructure to handle container cargo already is in place. The terminal is equipped with three cranes, including two that can accommodate the larger ships that will traverse the Panama Canal once it is expanded next year, and concrete runways for heavy cranes that are used to stack containers.

The 135-acre terminal previously handled container cargo prior to Newsome’s arrival in 2009. At that time, BMW vehicles were stored at Union Pier Terminal to the south while awaiting export.

“BMW was growing, so the question about three weeks into my job was, ‘Where are you going to put us?’,” Newsome said. “So we decided to make this (Columbus Street) a Ro-Ro terminal with BMW as the anchor tenant.”

About 800 BMW vehicles now move through the Columbus Street Terminal every day. South Carolina now is the nation’s top exporter of automobiles, with BMWs accounting for more than one-third of the state’s $29.7 billion export total.

Container operations previously were moved from Columbus Street to the Wando Welch and North Charleston terminals. Union Pier is home to the Carnival Fantasy cruise ship terminal, with a new $35 million terminal proposed for property just north of the current site.

Conservationists and neighborhood groups have opposed the new terminal, saying it should not be built so close to a historic neighborhood. They have filed state and federal lawsuits to stop the terminal’s construction and have pointed to the Columbus Street Terminal as a more appropriate site.

“We do think Columbus should be on the table,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, one of the groups suing the SPA over the proposed cruise terminal. “I don’t know if it’s feasible, but there is no analysis that suggests that it isn’t. I think there are also viable options up the river. This would require going under the (Ravenel) bridge, which would limit the size of the ships. We believe that would be a positive constraint.”

Newsome this week said operating cruises from the Columbus Street Terminal is not an option.

“No, this is a freight terminal, and we’ve always said it’s going to be an all-freight terminal,” he said. “It’s a strategic asset for us because, among many other things, it’s the home of BMW. We need every acre of space on this terminal for freight.”

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