Port of Charleston record cargo

The Port of Charleston set an annual record for cargo in 2019, with 2.44 million containers moving through the port's terminals — a 5 percent increase over the previous year. Provided/State Ports Authority

Bigger cranes, a refurbished container terminal and a continued influx of big ships sailing through the Panama Canal helped the Port of Charleston set an all-time cargo record in 2019.

The equivalent of 2.44 million 20-foot-long containers moved through the port's terminals last year, capping a decade of growth and breaking an annual record set in 2018.

"We enter 2020 with a great decade of growth behind us, during which we doubled our volumes, tripled our asset base and added more than 200 people to our team," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, which owns and operates the port.

Newsome joined the authority as the previous decade was about to start and is now overseeing $1.6 billion in new equipment and infrastructure to accommodate a new class of oversized ships that can carry 14,000 or more cargo containers through the expanded Panama Canal.

Construction of a pair of inland ports in Greer and Dillon has made it easier to move goods to and from the hinterland by rail, and those terminals — used by German automaker BMW, retailer Harbor Freight Tools and others — also set records in 2019 with combined cargo growth of 41 percent.

Newsome said growth at Charleston's port must continue to exceed the national average to remain among the nation's top 10 seaports, and the SPA is looking to attract retailers and other customers to diversify its manufacturing-heavy cargo base.

"The Southeast has turned out to be the star in the container port industry, and we don’t see that changing," he said.

The Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant continued to be the port's workhorse, handling 80 percent of all containerized cargo. The terminal's newly strengthened wharf soon will be able to handle three big ships at a time, and a new terminal opening next year in North Charleston will accommodate continued growth.

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Other Southeast ports also are setting annual cargo records. The Port of Virginia said it finished 2019 with 2.93 million containers — 3 percent better than 2018.

"We had a very successful year, having set a new record for volume, though our growth was not as much as we had planned," said John Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. "Trade thrives in a predictable environment and the tariffs created some uncertainty across the industry that had an effect on our year-end totals, but we don't measure success only in terms of cargo volume."

The Georgia Ports Authority hadn't tallied final numbers but said it expects to exceed 4.6 million containers for the first time. Griff Lynch, the GPA's executive director, said the agency is adding cranes, container rows, truck gates and rail capacity to maintain the growth.

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