Port plans to upgrade terminals for bigger ships

By Liz Segrist
Published Feb. 17, 2014
From the Feb. 10 print edition

Some of the Port of Charleston’s terminals are poised for an upgrade as bigger ships head for the East Coast.

The S.C. State Ports Authority plans to announce several infrastructure projects over the next 12 months to update its terminals, equipment and facilities in the Charleston region to accommodate larger ships, according to the ports authority’s board. The authority is also considering collaborating with regional ports in the future to address the challenges that accompany bigger ships.

The Port of Charleston plans to upgrade some of its terminals to accommodate larger ships. (Photo by Liz Segrist)
The Port of Charleston plans to upgrade some of its terminals to accommodate larger ships. (Photo by Liz Segrist)
“If most recent history tells us anything, it’s that we can expect to see bigger ships sooner than we think,” S.C. State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said. “We can expect even more in the future with the mega alliances (of shipping lines).”

Many of the local port terminals are designed for ships that are 5,000 to 6,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, a common industry measurement. The Wando Welch Terminal, for example, was designed in the 1980s and can accommodate roughly 4,000-TEU ships.

Local terminals need to be able to handle 14,000-TEU ships to remain competitive, Newsome said. Seventeen of the top 20 shipping lines in the world will receive new ships in 2014. More are on the order books to be delivered in 2017.

Ocean carriers have ordered 28 ships in the 10,000- to 12,000-TEU range; 60 ships for the 13,000-14,000 range and 41 ships for the 16,000-19,000 range, according to data from Alphaliner.

“Bigger ships means everything here needs to ramp up in size and weight and force,” Newsome said.

Cranes will have to be taller and heavier to reach across larger ships and handle their containers. Wharfs will need to be stronger to handle the force of heavier ships bouncing against them. The number of pilings needs to increase to support the terminals and the containers.

Upgrades could begin on the Wando Terminal next year and will likely take two years to complete. Cost projections were not available as the ports authority is scoping out the project now, Newsome said.

The North Charleston Terminal was upgraded a few years ago to handle post-Panamax container cranes and ships. The 280-acre Navy Base Terminal is under construction and will be designed with larger ships in mind. Once completed, the terminal is anticipated to increase the Port of Charleston’s container capacity by 50%.

The investment in terminals to accommodate larger ships is not unique to Charleston, Newsome said.

Sujit CanagaRetna, a researcher for the Council of State Governments’ Knowledge Center, said U.S. ports across the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts have been working to expand and prepare for the Panama Canal expansion that will potentially bring billion of dollars in trade to their harbors.

“Even though most experts are convinced the massive explosion in trade will provide ample opportunities for a number of these ports to benefit tremendously, they equally are convinced that these ports need to make essential infrastructure enhancements to accommodate the larger vessels that will be wending their way to their docks,” CanagaRetna said.

As for potential regional collaboration among ports, Newsome said he does not know what it would look like or if it would even happen.

Newsome said it is possible that regional ports will have to work together in the future to remain competitive and to meet the needs of the shipping lines as they continue to order larger ships.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma recently announced such an agreement. The former competitors will collaborate for the first time to discuss rates and operations, for example, and to strengthen their offerings in the competitive port industry.

Today, about 300 post-Panamax ships call on the Charleston Harbor annually. The largest ship to call on the port thus far was a 9,500-TEU ship.

Ships that are 14,000 TEUs are expected to call on the Charleston Harbor by the time the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey raises the Bayonne Bridge — expected by 2016 — to enable larger ships to flow underneath it.

The Panama Canal expansion, which is about 70% complete, also is expected to flood the East Coast with larger ships in 2015.

In the interim, larger ships are using the Suez Canal to reach their destinations. The ports authority is working to deepen the Charleston Harbor to at least 50 feet to accommodate these larger ships.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District plans to release its study this summer that will recommend new harbor depths.

“As we move into a global economy, the importance of being able to ship goods into and out of South Carolina is absolutely critical,” Congressman Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said to the ports authority board last month regarding the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which was passed by the U.S. House in October.

“The WRRDA will allow harbor dredging to begin five to seven years earlier than it would have otherwise, and it’s important for our delegation to continue working together. Everyone in South Carolina recognizes the economic development value of the port.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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