Panama Canal cotnaianer ships

More than 50 percent of the vessels that transit through the Panama Canal's largest locks are container ships, many of them headed to the Port of Charleston. The canal said it set a cargo record for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Provided/Panama Canal

Jim Newsome once would have laughed at the idea of mega-ships hauling 14,000 containers docking at the Port of Charleston on a regular basis.

That was long before the Panama Canal expansion was completed in July 2016.

"I never thought we'd see that," Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said of the big cargo ships now making their way through the canal to East Coast ports. "There was a time in my career when I would have told you (5,000-container) ships would be the biggest we'd see."

The canal recently announced another record for cargo, with 442.1 million tons of freight moving through the waterway in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That's a 9.5 percent increase over the previous year's total.

The increase was driven primarily by container vessels, although a wide range of ships — including vehicle carriers, chemical tankers and liquified natural gas carriers — contributed to the gains.

"The Panama Canal continues to exceed our expectations, reinforcing every day the importance of the waterway's expansion and its impact on global maritime trade," said Jorge Quijano, the canal's administrator.

The top route for ships transiting the canal was from Asia to U.S. East Coast ports. It's part of a continuing trend of Asian cargo bypassing traditional West Coast stops to unload containers in Charleston and other points on the eastern seaboard.

"My belief is that Asian-U.S. trade, which is the one we always measure, will be about 50-50 East Coast and Gulf Coast versus West Coast by 2025," Newsome said, adding the split "started at 85-15 West Coast versus East Coast in 2002."

Newsome calls the shift "a good story for our part of the world," and nowhere is that more evident than at the Port of Charleston.

These days, so-called neo-Panamax vessels — which were too large to navigate the canal before the expansion — account for 18 of the 25 cargo ships that visit the port each week. Eleven of them can carry 8,000 or more containers.

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The port had a record 2.2 million cargo boxes move through its terminals in fiscal 2018 — 13 percent higher than in the year before the Panama Canal expansion was finished. The authority's revenues have hit a record $252 million.

And Newsome said October will likely set an all-time record for containerized cargo once the final numbers are tallied.

The authority has spent $509 million over the past three years and plans to invest about $1 billion more to build a new container terminal, make improvements to its existing Wando Welch Terminal and purchase equipment like supersized ship-to-shore cranes, all designed to keep the big container ships coming to Charleston — the nation's ninth-largest seaport.

"We definitely have to remain in the top 10, and we're going to do that," Newsome said, adding that the "opportunities are significant" if the authority makes the investments needed to efficiently handle projected cargo growth.

That includes a $558 million project — paid for with state and federal funds — to deepen Charleston Harbor to 52 feet so that bigger, heavier container ships can visit the port at any time, regardless of tides.

"The goal of this project and really the goal of everything we're doing," Newsome said, "is to remove restrictions on accessing our harbor and for ships to come in and out."

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