Ravenel Bridge prepared port for booming growth

At 1043-feet long, the Regina Maersk was the largest ship ever to call at the Port of Charleston at one time. With her antenna lowered on its side, the ship barely could pass under the old Cooper River bridges.

When the Regina Maersk container ship sailed into the Port of Charleston on July 27, 1998, it could only carry a partial load so it could fit under the old Grace Memorial Bridge.

Seeing an opportunity to highlight the need for a new span over the Cooper River, port officials invited members of the state Legislature’s Joint Bond Review Committee — a key funding source — to ride aboard the Regina Maersk as it made its approach. It was such a tight fit, several of the committee’s members could nearly touch the bridge as the ship passed underneath.

Three years later, construction of the new Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge began. And for many, the bridge ushered in a new era for the Port of Charleston.

“Charleston’s ready today for big ships,” Bernard Groseclose Jr., then-president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said at the time. “The new bridge and harbor deepening, coupled with port expansion and new equipment, ensure Charleston’s place as a premier port for years to come.”

Back in 1998, the Regina Maersk was one of the world’s largest ships, able to carry 6,000 cargo boxes, and the bridge spanning access to the port was just 150 feet tall.

With expansion of the Panama Canal next year, ships more than twice the size of the Regina Maersk will be calling on ports along the East Coast.

But they wouldn’t be calling on Charleston if it weren’t for construction of the Ravenel Bridge.

“The height of that bridge is critical for the port,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority.

Newsome arrived at the port in 2009, four years after the new bridge opened to traffic. But he remembers the Grace Memorial — and its parallel partner, the Silas N. Pearman Bridge — as president of Hapag Lloyd, which regularly sent its cargo ships to the Charleston port.

Even then, Newsome said he realized Charleston’s port would be at a competitive disadvantage if a new bridge wasn’t build.

“It would have been a significant limitation,” he said.

With an official height of 186 feet at mean high water — closer to 200 feet at its midpoint — the Ravenel Bridge and a Charleston Harbor deepening program expected to finish by the end of this decade will let cargo vessels carrying as many as 14,000 boxes sail to any of the port’s terminals.

The two bridge towers are spaced 1,500 feet apart, providing future channel widening from 600 to 1,000 feet and allowing multiple ships to pass under the bridge at the same time.

“Charleston’s relative advantages are its draft and relative lack of congestion,” said Jennifer Bratton, one of the authors of a study that analyzes how East Coast ports will benefit from the Panama Canal expansion.

That study estimates at least 1 million additional cargo boxes will make their way from Asia to East Coast ports on those ships once the Panama Canal is expanded. That’s in addition to record growth the port is expecting in future years, both in imports and exports.

The Port of Charleston set a record for the number of cargo boxes that passed through its terminals — 1.134 million containers — the year the bridge opened and nearly matched that level in 2006 and 2007. However, volumes fell dramatically over the next three years, forcing Groseclose — accused by his detractors of poor community and industry relations and failure to bend to political pressure — to resign abruptly in 1999.

Newsome has turned around the port’s fortunes, with a near-record number of container boxes this year and projections for a new record in 2016. Newsome said the Ravenel Bridge has prepared the Port of Charleston for an enormous growth spurt over the next 20 years.

“The idea that big ships will be the driving force for our business was my thesis on coming here,” Newsome said. “It’s materializing even better than what we thought. Had they not built the Ravenel Bridge, we’d have a big problem.”

A taller bridge was so important to the port’s future that the SPA committed $45 million toward its $644 million construction cost.

The SPA also is spending another $700 million on a new cargo container terminal at the former Navy base in North Charleston to handle the expected increase in traffic.

“One element of our story is that we have a very capable harbor — width, depth and height of bridge, ingress and egress,” Newsome said. “A bigger element is that we are increasing our cargo base. I do think our harbor depth — we are the deepest harbor on the East Coast — gives us a fundamental edge in the South Atlantic for handling big ships.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren.