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Editorial: Smart planning? Luck? Who cares? Leatherman terminal opens just in time

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Leatherman container (copy)

A crane lifts the first cargo container to arrive at the new Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston last month. The first ship is set to arrive Friday. English Purcell/State Ports Authority/Provided

South Carolina’s newest container terminal has been in the works for more than two decades, so it’s probably a fluke that it happens to be opening — it’s scheduled to receive its first ship, the Yorktown Express, today — at seemingly just the right time.

The Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston is only the second container terminal the State Ports Authority has built from scratch and is its first to open in 40 years. The first one, the Wando Welch Terminal, has been operating at full capacity recently; whenever a ship leaves, another soon takes its place at the dock.

As reporter David Wren noted this week, an online buying binge, driven by those still remaining largely at home during the pandemic, has kept the port very busy: It moved 248,796 containers through its terminals in March, up 34% from March 2020 and a monthly record (eclipsing the 233,110 containers moved in August 2019).

State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said of Leatherman’s opening: “You almost couldn’t pick a better time to open a terminal. You could call it dumb luck in a sense.” If that shipping activity continues to grow and there were no new terminal, the waits for a berth to open at the Wando would only lengthen — and that eventually could drive business away.

Wando’s biggest pinch isn’t that the Mount Pleasant terminal lacks space in its yard to stack containers coming and going; it’s that there’s only room enough to berth three ships at a time. When it opened, its dock was long enough to handle five ships at once, but that was before the decades-long trend toward ever more massive, longer ships, such as the skyscraper-sized Ever Given that got stuck last month in the Suez Canal.

This month’s timing of the terminal opening was not the only fortuitous stroke. The authority was wise to pivot a few years ago to order larger container cranes capable of lifting containers 169 feet up in the air and 228 feet across. Its original cranes could not have handled the larger vessels arriving today, some of which can carry 20,000 shipping containers.

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The new terminal has other state-of-the-art features, too, such as 25 hybrid gantry cranes, eight empty container handlers and a new operating system, though those features likely will be seen close up mostly by those working the ships.

“I think our team has made a lot of good decisions along the way, which is what we’re supposed to do, but it’s hard to do,” Mr. Newsome told us.

What the Leatherman Terminal still lacks is a nearby intermodal yard that would enable containers to come and go by train and any dockside infrastructure to accept containers sent over from the Wando Terminal by barge. The Legislature and Gov. Henry McMaster have been asked to approve $550 million in borrowing to make those needed upgrades.

We appreciate that this is a big request, especially on top of the more than $1 billion already invested in the terminal, the deepening of Charleston Harbor, the new road linking the terminal and Interstate 26 and more. As some have noted, the new borrowing represents more than $100 for every resident of our state.

Lawmakers are right to scrutinize the details, but it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind, too, specifically the positive effect the port’s vitality has on businesses across South Carolina. As state leaders weigh what to do next, the terminal’s opening should give them a sense of reassurance that our big investments so far look like they’re paying off.

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