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Fast-paced growth moves Charleston port ahead in US top 10 list

Wando Welch Terminal ships (copy)

Bigger ships are bringing more cargo to the Port of Charleston, which now ranks as the nation's eighth-largest seaport. The port leads the nation with a 6.58 percent annualized growth rate since 2011. Walter Lagarenne/Provided/State Ports Authority  

The Port of Charleston now ranks as the nation's eighth-largest maritime hub after experiencing the largest annual cargo growth of any major U.S. seaport since 2010.

The local waterfront handled 2.8 million shipping containers measured in 20-foot increments last year, moving it ahead of the Port of Oakland for the No. 8 spot on the nation's top 10 list, according to figures released this week by the State Ports Authority.

Oakland, with 2.4 million containers, slipped to No. 9, just ahead of the Port of Jacksonville in Florida.

Charleston has doubled the number of cargo boxes it handles since 2011, giving it an annual growth rate of 6.58 percent. The growth rate was nearly double the national average and outpaced every other top 10 port during the period, with Savannah coming in second with a 6.44 percent annual growth rate.

"The East Coast and Gulf Coast ports are where the growth has been in the last 11 years," said Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO. All of the ports that posted annual gains of at least 5 percent are within those two geographic areas.

"The top U.S. ports are getting larger and we expect that to continue just in view of the magnitude of the investment required" to handle big ships sailing from Asia, Newsome said. He said the top 10 ports are now handling 85 percent of all containerized cargo moving to and from the country — up from 80 percent a few years ago. 

The port was once ranked much higher but has remained within the top 10. For instance, it was No. 4 in the country in 2002 before losing ground the following year, first to Savannah.   

California's top ports remained the nation's largest in 2021, with Los Angeles handling 10.7 million containers and Long Beach moving 9.4 million through its terminals.

The Port of New York-New Jersey was No. 3, with 9.1 million containers in 2021, followed by the Port of Savannah with 5.6 million. Seattle's waterfront rounded out the top five, handling 3.7 million boxes last year.

The statistics are based on numbers compiled by the American Association of Port Authorities and reporting on individual ports' websites.

East Coast ports have spent billions of dollars in recent years to accommodate the cargo growth. The SPA, for example, has invested more than $2 billion in a new container terminal, a deeper harbor, new cranes and a stronger wharf at its Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

Also, the Georgia is in the final phase of a $1 billion project to deepen the Savannah River and plans to build a second terminal on Hutchinson Island, across the waterway from the Garden City's Ocean Terminal.

In addition, the Port of Virginia in Norfolk also is in the midst of a plan to deepen and widen its shipping channel, allowing two-way traffic for the world's largest container carriers.

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