A plan by the State Ports Authority to hire its own truckers is drawing heat from South Carolina's private-sector trucking industry, which worries the move will hurt independent operators and small businesses while giving the agency that operates the Port of Charleston an unfair advantage.
"This is anathema to what’s been the public policy of this state, and creates an enormously unlevel competitive playing field," said Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association. "The private sector is best at efficiency and cost-control. The government is not."
The plan, first reported by FitsNews.com, calls for the SPA to lease 15 trucks and hire 30 drivers to haul cargo containers between the SPA's terminals and rail yards, what the maritime agency calls its Rapid Rail program. Staffing firm MAU Workforce Solutions held an event May 28 for drivers interested in working for the SPA. The positions pay $17 an hour and offer retirement, health and other benefits.
"There is not currently enough dedicated truck capacity in Charleston to handle Rapid Rail volumes that exist," the SPA said in a statement, adding it also is willing to pay more money to companies willing to dedicate capacity to the program on an ongoing basis.
The Rapid Rail program moves about 350,000 containers of all sizes a year, or about one-fourth of the cargo moving through the port.
The agency's trucks "will only handle rail drayage for which the SPA is the provider to its ocean carrier customers and will not handle third-party business," the agency said.
Todd isn't buying that. He said truckers are worried the long-range plan is to move containers between the port and nearby distribution centers, such as the one Walmart is building at the SPA-owned Ridgeville Commerce Center. That site alone will need 70,000 containers to be transported by trucks each year.
"They would try to dominate certain services and control certain customers, despite their promises," Todd said, adding the SPA's truckers would be operating without the same regulations and tax expenses that private-sector drivers face. "They would be controlling port users' and customers' freight services, access to trucking capacity and be picking winners and losers."
Todd added that he doubts the SPA would stop at 15 trucks and also disputes its contention that its plan is designed to increase the number of trucks and truckers moving cargo.
The SPA "would be poaching drivers from the private sector," he said.
Todd said he would prefer the SPA "partner with our initiatives on skilled workforce development to increase the pool of talent, not contributing to moving it from one bucket to another."
The plan has caught the trucking association off guard, and Todd said he initially hoped to discourage the SPA from moving forward. He now considers the plan "a mega concern that's hard to overstate."
"So we are considering all options to stop this before it gets rolling, including injunctions, legislative and other measures," he said.
Shipping firm A&R Logistics has started operations at a new liquid chemical transloading station at its Moncks Corner site, where the company already packages truckloads of plastic pellets for export through the Port of Charleston.
The site has 160 feet of liquid transload track served by CSX Corp. trains, where up to three large chemical tanks can be loaded at a time. The loading process takes about an hour. It is the first transloading station of its kind for A&R, one of the nation's largest supply chain services companies.
"We can now safely and efficiently move bulk chemical product from railcar to tank to port to customer," A&R President Chris Ball said in a statement. "This benefits customers from a cost, speed and safety perspective with fewer touch-points along the supply chain."
This is the first liquid transloading station for Louisville, Ky.-based A&R, which opened its 615,000-square-foot warehouse along U.S. Highway 52 in November. The $60 million development at West Branch Commerce Park takes pea-sized plastic pellets, also called nurdles, brought by trains from Gulf Coast refineries and packages them in roughly 50-pound bags to be exported from Charleston to foreign countries.
The pellets are a raw material used in thousands of household goods made by overseas manufacturers.