CHARLESTON, S.C. — If the necessary approvals are delivered as planned, the Port of Charleston deepening project will be approved in late 2015, and the South Atlantic gateway will have a 50-foot channel five years later.
“Clearly, we want it finalized within this decade,” James Newsome, president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Ports Authority, told the South Carolina International Trade Conference on Sept. 9.
Deepening Charleston’s harbor to 50 feet is “the most important strategic project the port is engaged in today,” Newsome said. Charleston and other East Coast ports, such as New York-New Jersey, Savannah, Jacksonville and Miami, are in a race with time.
The Panama Canal expansion project is on track for completion by mid-2015. When the third set of locks is opened, vessels with a capacity of up to 13,000 20-foot containers carrying containerized imports from Asia will be able to transit the canal and call at East Coast ports.
Those same vessels laden with U.S. exports will need deeper harbors in order to operate fully laden to Asia. Export commodities, in fact, are generally heavier than imports. These vessels will require no less than a 50-foot harbor draft in order to move into and out of East Coast ports without depending upon tidal variations, Newsome said.
Global shipping lines have decreed that mega-ships operated by mega-consortia are the future of containerized shipping. By the end of 2015, at least 56 percent of the world’s container ships will be larger than 5,000-TEU capacity, which are the largest vessels capable of transiting the Panama Canal today.
The top 20 container lines all have in service or on order vessels of 7,500-TEU capacity or larger. By the end of the decade, vessels with a capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 TEUs will be the “workhorses of vessels calling on the East Coast,” Newsome said.
These big ships will be operated largely by carriers that operate in global alliances, such as the G6, CKYH, and the newly formed P3 Network. When the P3 alliance of Maersk Line, CMA CGM and Mediterranean Shipping Co. begins service next year, it will control about 30 percent of global container capacity. The vessels operated by the P3 alliance will have an average capacity of 10,000 TEUs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is on schedule to complete its draft feasibility study of the Charleston deepening project in the summer of 2014, with the final draft to be completed by Sept. 2015, said Lieutenant Colonel John Litz, who is in charge of the Charleston district.
Litz said the intensive studies now underway will determine whether the preferred harbor depth from an economic and environmental perspective is 48, 50 or 52 feet. The corps is studying all of those options.
The state of South Carolina believes that Charleston must have a 50-foot depth in order to compete with other East Coast ports, as well as West Coast and Canadian ports, for a fair share of the Asian trade. The state is so set on a 50-foot minimum depth that it has placed $300 million, which would fully pay for the 50-foot,project, in a bank account in Columbia, S.C., Newsome said.
If the corps’ feasibility study confirms that 50 feet is the best option, the federal government will pay $120 million toward the $300 million price tag. If the study does not reach that conclusion, Charleston will still be free to dredge to 50 feet, but it will have to pay for the deepening with its own money, said Brian Williams, project manager.
Vessel strings in all-water services to the East Coast often call at three port ranges, New York-New Jersey, Norfolk and the South Atlantic. New York, with its large population, is a must-call on all-water services, but the big ships calling there must wait for completion of a project to raise the Bayonne Bridge to a 215-foot clearance. That project is set for completion in 2016.
In addition to addressing the deepening of Charleston’s harbor, the corps study will look at the best options for widening the channel and enlarging the turning basin. Even with this additional work, the cost of the Charleston project will be lower than similar projects in other South Atlantic ports, Newsome said. This will serve Charleston well in an era of tight federal money, he said.