This month's opening of the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston marks a generational milestone not only for the Port of Charleston but also for the state of South Carolina, which broadly shares in the economic riches our bustling port brings.
The new terminal's opening also marks the end of an epic, often controversial saga that stretched on for a quarter of a century, as port, state and local leaders originally eyed placing a massive new container terminal on the southern tip of Daniel Island only to pivot across the Cooper River as opposition arose and the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard closed.
The Leatherman Terminal is only the second terminal built by the State Ports Authority since its creation in 1941, and it comes almost four decades after the Wando Terminal (now the Wando Welch Terminal) welcomed its first container ship. The Wando is now the authority's largest and busiest, and site of its new headquarters; the Leatherman can be expanded to almost the same size, as needed, in future years.
The State Ports Authority's approximately $1 billion investment in the Leatherman Terminal reflects just one piece of a much larger public commitment to ensuring our port's competitiveness. Other pieces include the $565 million, multiyear harbor deepening project and the recently opened $220 million Port Access Road that links the new terminal to Interstate 26. Even the $600 million investment in the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge almost two decades ago is part of the big picture, as it allows ever-larger container ships to pass underneath.
We hope the pieces also will include a new $400 million intermodal container yard as well as a $150 million barge investment that will allow containers to be shuttled over water from Mount Pleasant to the intermodal yard — which promises to ease traffic on the already-congested eastern leg of Interstate 526. We urge lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster to follow through with borrowing $550 million to realize that final piece of investment, finding the best deal for both state taxpayers and the port.
Building the terminal — which expects to receive its first ship Friday and already has at least one container waiting in its yard — was a massive engineering and construction challenge that involved enough sand to fill 1,257 Olympic-size swimming pools, more than 4 million tons of stone and enough wick drains to stretch from California to Hawaii and back again.
Its initial phase features a 1,400-foot-long berth and five new ship-to-shore cranes that can reach 169 feet up and 228 feet across, enough to handle the ever-larger mega container ships arriving here. Its 47-acre container yard is only a fraction of the size of Wando's, but the terminal will expand over time, based on demand. Ultimately, it could handle 2.4 million cargo containers a year, roughly doubling the port’s existing capacity.
New electric and hybrid equipment will reduce emissions, and the new access road has opened to direct most truck traffic to Interstate 26 without passing through North Charleston neighborhoods. The port and city of North Charleston remain in talks about mitigating the impact of port-related train traffic on the city. We urge a successful resolution.
The terminal's opening marks the beginning of the end to redevelop and reuse the former naval base, a vast, largely industrial site that fronts the Cooper River for 3 miles. A generation ago, the base's closure led to predictions of economic doom for our region; that never happened, thanks to other growth far from the base.
But today, the base has its new terminal on the southern end and an expanding Riverfront Park at its northern tip. In between are scores of renovated historic buildings and many new businesses, plus the recently unveiled "Navy Yard Charleston" project that should refurbish several landmark buildings along Storehouse Row into 1.2 million square feet of offices, residences, shops and restaurants. Although the vision is expected to take about 15 years to realize, it's clear that the former base is now contributing to the region's economy more than ever, and that will only continue to grow.
As the Leatherman Terminal opens, port officials, as well as state and local leaders, must avoid complacency. We've seen how long it takes to realize these enormous infrastructure expansions; by the time one major piece opens, it's already time to start thinking about — and planning for — what should come next.