The State Ports Authority is keeping its eye on the horizon as it must to stay competitive globally. With unprecedented spending on capital projects now underway, the Port of Charleston should be able to handle its projected container volume through about 2035 and continue to serve as one of the state’s greatest economic engines.
Indeed, the health of the port is crucial to the health of the wider economy. A 2015 study tied it to 187,200 jobs statewide and put its economic impact at a staggering $53 billion. The port acts as a magnet for automakers and other big manufacturers because it opens them to global markets.
By almost any measure the port is booming. Container volume has been increasing steadily since the Great Recession, with ports like Charleston getting a larger share of trade direct from the Far East. And a recent study that showed an improved benefit-cost ratio for the harbor deepening project bodes well for increased federal funding of the project, which runs through 2021.
Bigger is better, but moving more boxes isn’t the only job. Staying competitive also will mean becoming more nimble in a sometimes fickle economy.
As SPA chief executive Jim Newsome noted in his State of the Port presentation Monday, expanding and diversifying the cargo base will become increasingly important to supporting the supply chains of major industries and big manufacturers.
Already, tariffs on imports to China have hurt BMW, which saw production fall 6.2 percent in September, but Mr. Newsome said he expected exports to return to previous levels once shipping of its new X5 model ramps up.
New tariffs are slowing the port’s acquisition of cranes from China to bring the Wando Welch terminal up to full capacity. But the ports authority is poised to invest heavily in that terminal and to get the Leatherman Terminal up and running.
Mr. Newsome is also wisely looking at the port playing a larger role in regional retail distribution, including e-commerce, moving more containers by rail and becoming more efficient in getting empty containers where they need to go.
The SPA already operates truck-and-rail inland ports in Greer and Dillon, and has purchased 1,000 acres in Ridgeville for a planned intermodal transit station that may be developed to serve retailers.
Moving more containers by rail would be more efficient and help take trucks off the road. Moving more landed cargo by rail could also help counter the effects of new low-sulfur fuel standards for ships, which are expected to increase the cost of imports by 2020.
As the port sells off its unused land, Charleston will benefit directly. The old SPA headquarters downtown, for instance, will become a new hotel and marina, and Waterfront Park will be expanded. Plus the valuable property will go back on the tax rolls, as will other port-owned properties that are redeveloped in the near future.
Certainly, Mr. Newsome and his team deserve credit for guiding the expansion and modernization of the port. The challenge now will be to streamline its operations and increase its ability to adapt to changes within the industry and in global economics.