Planning to build the load center port of the future requires a strategic vision that emphasizes construction of large marine terminals, harbor deepening, expanding road and rail access and a cargo growth strategy, according to the director of the Port of Charleston.
As Charleston vies to become the load center for the Southeast, the port is implementing this multifaceted approach, with cargo development being the priority, said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority.
“You can’t just carve the pie differently. Cargo growth trumps all others,” Newsome told the South Carolina International Trade Conference Wednesday.
There are four South Atlantic ports within 400 miles of each other that are capable of handling containers, making this one of the most competitive port regions in the country. Deepening their harbors to accommodate the big ships that will be able to transit the Panama Canal when its $5 billion expansion project is completed is a goal of many East Coast ports today.
Having a 50-foot harbor that can accommodate large vessels 24 hours a day without relying upon tidal variations is certainly going to give a port an advantage after 2015. A typical string of eight or nine container ships needed for an all-water service from Asia represents an investment of $1 billion, and carriers won’t commit to a port that can only accommodate the ships four hours a day, Newsome said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects it will take until 2020 to complete the permitting process and dredge Charleston’s harbor to a depth of 50 feet. Newsome believes the process can be completed by 2018.
But deep water is simply the price of entry today for load center ports. Marine terminals must be productive, capable of turning the vessels in 24 hours, he said. Terminals must also be large. “Nothing good at a port happens on less than 100 acres,” he said.
Efficient road and rail access to inland cargo hubs is likewise important. Charleston’s inland port of the future is planned for Greer, S.C., about 220 miles from the port, on a 500-acre site. The inland port is expected to be a magnet for manufacturing plants and distribution facilities, and is scheduled to open in late 2013.
Charleston is engaged in an ambitious 10-year, $2 billion capital program that will expand infrastructure within the port gates and outside of the gates. Newsome said that if the port continues to grow faster than the overall market, as it is doing this year with the addition of four new services, Charleston may eventually have to acquire additional land for port expansion.
While all of these improvements are necessary, the port will not reach its potential unless it attracts more importers and exporters to the region and expands its cargo base. “The name of the game is growing volume,” Newsome said.