Its new Leatherman container terminal won't open until the middle of 2020, but the State Ports Authority is already putting in its order for new ship-to-shore cranes to be placed at the North Charleston maritime hub.

"There's a long lead time to get them designed and fabricated, so we have to start just about two years in advance," said Jim Van Ness, the SPA's director of engineering and the person overseeing construction of the terminal at the former Navy base site. "We're in the early stages of preparing the specifications for the cranes."

The move represents a shift at the $762 million Leatherman Terminal, which soon will switch from preparation phase to construction. Contracts to build the wharf, container yard, offices and other facilities will be awarded by next spring, and preparations are being made to have container handling equipment in place.

"The activities that will take place over the next 18 months will mark a significant shift from early site preparation into actual construction, design and purchase of equipment," said Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO.

Newsome said the coming months "will be an exciting time to watch the terminal take shape."

The new terminal's five super post-Panamax cranes will be built in China and will be capable of moving cargo on big ships carrying 13,000 or more cargo boxes. They likely will be a little bigger than cranes the SPA recently installed at the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

By the time the terminal opens, five of the cranes will line the first of three berths that will be built.

The cranes should be delivered in late 2019, and the first ship should visit the terminal shortly after its opening ceremony in late June the following year.

In the meantime, the SPA continues to place fill material in an area where the wharf will be built. About 2.8 million tons of crushed rock have been transported by ship to the construction site from a quarry in Newfoundland. Another 900,000 tons of rock will be placed on the site before shipments conclude sometime in November.

Los Angeles-based infrastructure firm AECOM is about one-fifth of the way through a detailed design plan for the terminal that started in June and should wrap up by the end of this year. That work will include plans for roads, utilities, stormwater drainage, buildings and other structures that builders can use in the construction stage.

"This design work will facilitate development of North America's newest and most advanced container terminal," Tim Keener, AECOM's executive vice president and general manager for the Southeast region, said in a statement.

Last week, the SPA's board of directors approved a plan to install eight foundation piles in the wharf area. The nearly $1 million project, expected to wrap up by November, will test the vertical and lateral load strengths of the pilings.

"It will provide information to design engineers and contractors so designers can be more efficient and contractors can know more about the (soil) conditions at the site for drivability," Van Ness said.

The information that's collected will be provided to potential bidders for the wharf construction contract, he said, increasing the accuracy of the final bids.

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While the first phase of the terminal will be ready in less than three years, its full build-out won't occur until later in the next decade. When finished, the Leatherman terminal — named after the high-ranking Republican state senator from Florence — will have more than 3,500 feet of continuous berth, 13 dockside cranes and 202 acres of storage space for containers. The facility will be able to handle up to 1.4 million cargo boxes each year.

The facility will roughly double the Port of Charleston's current capacity, with its existing Wando Welch and North Charleston terminals handling a record 1.21 million cargo boxes in fiscal 2017, which ended on June 30.

The amount of cargo is expected to grow in coming years as more big container ships travel through the expanded Panama Canal to East Coast ports. That will combine with population growth and new manufacturing plants throughout the Southeast to drive more freight to and from Charleston, said Newsome, the SPA chief.

The terminal's opening date will roughly coincide with completion of a $529 million project to dredge Charleston Harbor to 52 feet, giving the port the East Coast's deepest shipping channel. That project is scheduled to start this fall.

The terminal and deeper harbor are among about $2 billion the SPA and state and federal governments will spend over the next few years to help the Port of Charleston better accommodate big container ships.

"All of these projects position our port for competitiveness well into the future," Newsome said.

Among the planned work: the S.C. Department of Transportation is building a four-lane road that will connect the Leatherman terminal with Interstate 26; and Palmetto Railways, a division of the state Commerce Department, plans to build a $130 million rail yard where cargo will be loaded on and off freight trains operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp.

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