Port steams ahead S.C. boosts cargo volume while keeping efficiency levels steady

January’s cargo volume at the Port of Charleston was up 21 percent from a year ago.

South Carolina’s ports have handled a 15.3 percent increase in cargo this fiscal year without any significant slowdown in the number of cargo boxes that are lifted onto and off containerships each hour.

Officials say it’s an example of the local industry’s efficiency compared to West Coast seaports that have been brought to a standstill by labor disputes and other problems.

“The message here is that this port works,” said Jim Newsome, CEO of the State Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston. “This is a productive place to work, and you can’t say that about all places.”

The SPA handled 614,372 containers during the first seven months of fiscal 2015, which started in July, up from 532,960 for the year-earlier period. Despite the increase in volume, the SPA said it has maintained its average of more than 41 container moves per ship each hour.

January’s cargo volume was 21 percent higher than the same month a year ago, and the SPA is turning that efficiency into dollars. The agency’s operating earnings have topped $17 million so far this fiscal year, more than triple the number from the same period a year ago.

“Not all ports are doing what you’re doing here,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said during an event Wednesday at the Wando Welch Terminal. Foxx was at the Mount Pleasant container hub with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss a plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

Biden commended SPA officials for the capital investments they’re making to keep the port competitive.

“You have been self-starters,” Biden said, referring to the plan to deepen Charleston Harbor to 52 feet from 45 feet. The deeper channel is needed to accommodate larger containerships that will become the norm after the Panama Canal expansion is completed next year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected in September to issue its final report, which will be used to lobby Congress for funding of the federal portion of the $509 million dredging project.

“Now, I can’t tell the Corps what to do, I never do, but my guess is you have a compelling case,” Biden said of the harbor deepening.

The SPA’s board took several other measures to shore up facilities during its monthly meeting Wednesday. It approved an $836,000 dredging contract to bring the Wando Welch berth to 50 feet, and it will spend $2.5 million to replace six full container handlers at the Wando Welch and North Charleston terminals.

The work is designed to help the port compete with its chief rival, the Port of Savannah, and with ports nationwide.

Newsome said he predicts a gradual shift of business to East Coast ports, including Charleston’s, from the West Coast, partly because of congestion and union disagreements that are costing retailers and other shippers billions of dollars.

About 70 percent of the nation’s imports and exports move through the West Coast, a ratio that is starting to shift in the East Coast’s favor. Newsome said some experts project the two coasts will evenly share cargo traffic within a few years, as businesses find it more efficient to move goods to and from large population bases east of the Mississippi River rather than using rail to move it eastward from the West Coast.

That, combined with the growth in larger container vessels, should help the Port of Charleston continue its growth in coming years, albeit at a slower pace. Newsome said it will be tough to beat year-over-year numbers in the next few months because last spring was so strong. He added, however, that he expects the port to record annual numbers soon, perhaps during the next fiscal year.

“It’s in sight,” Newsome said of the record growth figures.

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