Ports to get $17.3M info technology update

The Port of Charleston handles around 2 million containers a year through the Wando Welch Terminal (above) in Mount Pleasant and its other waterfront facilities.

The creaking electronic backbone of the state's port system will be replaced under a project set to begin next year.

The S.C. State Ports Authority board voted Tuesday to spend $17.3 million to replace the information-technology system that has helped the agency manage its terminals for 30 years.

"It's critical," said Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and chief executive officer. "It's the brains of the terminals."

Among other benefits, the new software program is expected to enable port customers to keep better track of their shipments and reduce turn times at the gates for truckers, SPA officials said.

The authority's board approved a contract Tuesday for up to $8.35 million with Zebra Enterprise Solutions to install the new operating system. Also, the SPA will spend up to $8.95 million on other project needs.

Work will begin in February, and it will involve an outreach program for maritime businesses that will be affected by the changes.

SPA spokesman Byron Miller said the flow of data between the SPA and its customers and other waterfront users is vital to an industry that handles thousands of containers a day.

"If information doesn't move, cargo doesn't move," Miller said.

Also on Tuesday, predictions of a slowdown at the port came true in August, underscoring the tenuous nature of the nation's economic recovery. Newsome warned last month and again on Tuesday that the SPA's business cycle probably peaked for the year in July, when many retailers shipped their holiday goods.

The new numbers bore out that forecast: Container volume slipped almost 7 percent in August compared to the previous month, though business was up 21 percent compared to August 2009.

Newsome said he recently returned from a trip to Asia where he found demand for goods to be robust.

"The bad news is that's not being accounted for by the U.S. economy," he said.

Newsome said expectations on the import side are low.

"So for the last half of the year, there's not going to be a lot of volume growth in the U.S. port market," he said.

Exports represent a potential bright spot, especially cotton, he added. Also the SPA hopes to capitalize on soaring demand for another agriculture commodity.

"Grain is going absolutely off the charts," Newsome said. "Apparently the Russian grain harvest is the worst in years."