Port of Charleston among top import hubs in U.S.

Containerized cargo is projected to increase at the Port of Charleston with weekly visits starting later this year from a pair of container ships carrying 14,000 cargo boxes. File/Staff

The difference is less than two-tenths of 1 percent, but it will determine whether the Port of Charleston ranks among the nation’s top five import hubs or falls just below that level.

A report this week by Journal of Commerce, a maritime industry publication, said the Port of Charleston experienced 12.48 percent growth in imports last year — the fifth-highest total among all U.S. ports.

Trouble is, the State Ports Authority’s official figures put import growth at 12.02 percent in 2015. And that would put the Port of Charleston at No. 6 on the top 10 list — right behind the Port of Houston’s 12.18 percent growth rate.

Mark Szakonyi — executive editor of JOC.com, the online arm of JOC — said the discrepancy likely results from the magazine’s use of a proprietary database called PIERS. That database, owned by the same company that publishes the Journal of Commerce, doesn’t always match up exactly with port statistics, Szakonyi said.

“So the difference is well within a margin of error and most likely the result of different record-keeping practices/calculation,” he said.

According to SPA figures, the Port of Charleston handled the equivalent of 835,197 20-foot-long imported shipping containers in 2015 compared to 745,578 the previous year.

Journal of Commerce statistics have the Charleston handling 835,127 cargo boxes in 2015. The magazine does not list the 2014 figure it used to calculate the percentage growth.

SPA spokeswoman Erin Dhand said the maritime agency “double-checked our stats” on Tuesday and confirmed its numbers are correct.

Although the bragging rights that come with a higher ranking might be fun, SPA officials aren’t losing any sleep over which end of the top 10 list the Port of Charleston falls.

“While benchmarking is important, we’re focused on growing above the U.S. port market average in order to execute our capital plans and prepare to accommodate big ships,” said Dhand, referring to a project to dredge Charleston Harbor to 52 feet so larger, heavier ships can call on the port.

“Our eye is on the prize in 2020 — deepest harbor on the East Coast, Leatherman Terminal opening (at the former Navy Base) and a new intermodal facility,” Dhand said.

A spokeswoman for the Port of Houston could not be reached for comment.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, has said he expects all cargo shipments to slow during the first half of 2016 — both because of global economic uncertainty and the difficulty of topping last year’s near-record numbers.

“We expect flat to very modest growth over the next six months.” Newsome told The Post and Courier. “Short term, it seems global trade is taking a pause right now. We believe that to be a short-term blip right now.”

Exports at the Port of Charleston were down 1.5 percent year-over-year in December while imports were up 9.2 percent for the same period.

New Orleans had the biggest percentage growth in imports during the last calendar year, according to the Journal of Commerce report, at 12.1 percent. That jump “came primarily from Chiquita’s first full year of (fruit) shipments since moving its business from nearby Gulfport, Miss.,” the magazine reported.

The Port of Savannah was No. 2 with a 20.26 percent growth in imports. That growth was fueled by labor strife at West Coast ports, which practically shut down operations.

“The South Atlantic’s largest import gateway, already benefiting from rapid population growth in the Southeast, provided a logical relief valve for cargo diverted from West Coast ports clogged by labor disputes,” according to the report.

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