Empty-box decline impacts port

The OOCL Tianjin, which carries about 8,000 containers, is an example of the larger cargo ships paying regular visits to the Port of Charleston. The port has experienced a 9.2 percent increase in containerized cargo this year. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

A pair of record-setting months has put the State Ports Authority on track to move more containers than any other year in its history, even as bigger ships line up to visit.

The Port of Charleston handled a record 108,961 cargo boxes in March, surpassing the previous monthly record of 104,792 set in January. Through the first three quarters of fiscal 2017, the port has handled 892,892 containers — and is on pace to eclipse its annual record of 1.134 million from 2005.

"There's no one thing that led to the March record," Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO, said during Wednesday's meeting of the maritime agency's board of directors. "We're seeing healthy, across-the-board growth in both imports and exports. The cargo development plan we've implemented over the years is paying off for us."

The growth comes ahead of a visit by the first container ship capable of carrying 13,000 cargo boxes — the COSCO Development, which is scheduled to arrive on May 13. It's the largest container ship to visit the East Coast, marking the arrival of global alliances in which lines will share space on oversized vessels to save money.

The alliances will mean fewer visits to the Port of Charleston but an increase in visits by bigger ships carrying more cargo. Already, the number of weekly port calls has dropped from 26 at the end of the last fiscal year to 24 in April. But the number of visits by vessels too large to fit through the Panama Canal before its 2016 expansion has grown by two.

Despite fewer calls, the bigger ships have slightly increased the overall cargo capacity of vessels now visiting Charleston.

Newsome said he expects that trend to continue when the Bayonne Bridge is raised later this summer, allowing the large container ships to call on the Port of New York-New Jersey.

"I think that will lead to another string of 13,000 ships (at Charleston)," Newsome said, bringing the number of weekly calls from the mega-ships to two. "The Bayonne Bridge is a game-changer for the East Coast."

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The SPA's inland port in Greer also set a record in March, with 11,669 cargo boxes moved between trucks and trains. That is a 22 percent increase from the previous record of 9,593 moves in January and gives the facility 84,874 cargo transfers this fiscal year. That total is nearly 27 percent greater than the same period a year earlier.

The cargo growth in Charleston is similar to increases seen at competing ports. The Port of Virginia, for example, had 9.4 percent year-over-year growth in March, its fourth-busiest month in history. The Port of Savannah experienced 5.6 percent cargo growth last month.

In other board action Wednesday:

  • The two newest members of the board were seated. Kenneth Jackson, a vice president of Cayce-based energy holding company SCANA Corp., and environmental attorney William Jones were appointed to the board this month by the state Senate. They replace Pat McKinney, the former chairman, and Mike Sisk. Board member Pamela Lackey is serving as interim chairman until the board elects new officers.
  • The board approved a $2.9 million services contract with HDR Engineering Inc. for work at the Leatherman Terminal under construction at the former Navy base in North Charleston. That terminal is set to open in 2019, about the same time Charleston Harbor is deepened to 52 feet.

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