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SCPA capital plan "will define our future" says port CEO

With Charleston among the fastest growing container ports in the US, the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) is spending heavily on everything from cranes, to IT and yard equipment.

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While the financial markets and investors across the US are growing increasingly nervous about trade, tariffs and stock prices, SCPA president and CEO Jim Newsome presented a highly optimistic outlook for the future at the port’s annual “State of the Port” event at the Propeller Club in Charleston this week.

The headline numbers for the SCPA make very good reading, for the 2018 fiscal year, which ran July 2017 through June 2018, Charleston handed 2.2M TEU, up 3% over the previous year. “March through June marked the highest months of container volume in the Port’s history,” SCPA added. The breakbulk sector delivered 760,501 pier tons during FY2018, including 232,390 vehicles handled across the docks of the Columbus Street Terminal.

The performance underlines a very strong period from 2009 to 2017 when Charleston overcame a temporary loss of business from Maersk to almost double container volume from 1.18M TEU in calendar 2009 to 2.28M TEU in calendar 2017. Over that period Chareslton has experienced a CAGR rate in box volume of 8%, the highest rate of all the top 10 US box ports. Over the same time period the total US container volume CAGR was 4.4% - so Charleston has increased its market share.

Charleston has clearly benefited from the Panama Canal expansion, with 18 of the 26 weekly services now calling the port utilising ships with Neo Panamanx tonnage. Newsome said US the canal expansion presents US East Coast ports like Charleston with two choices: large timely investments to handle growth and big ships; or “fall behind and lose control of their destiny”. Chareslton has chosen the former and is spending heavily. Its CAPEX budget for FY2018 was $213.8M, up from $180.9M in 2017, and the port port is planning to spend $329M in 2019 and $331M in 2020. Newsome emphasised that the investments made over FY2019 to FY2021 “will define our future”.

At the Wando Welch terminal the wharf refurbishment project has been completed, and the SCPA said the terminal can now berth three neo-Panamax vessels. To work three such vessels simultaneously “the facility will offer 15 ship-to-shore (STS) cranes with 155 feet of lift height; 65 rubber-tired gantry (RTG) cranes; 25 empty handlers; 40 gates; a dedicated chassis yard; and optimized operations allowing for a 2.4 million TEUs capacity”, as part of an enhancement project valued at nearly $400 million.

It is not clear how many new cranes this will require. Wando Welch has 11 cranes at the moment, with two more are on the way from ZPMC. Not all of the existing cranes have a 155ft lift height, and four are currently being raised. The SCPA is purchasing five units for the new units for the Hugh K. Leatherman, Sr. Terminal, and two cranes for North Charleston. The latter two were specified to be raised easily, if the SCPA wants to move them to Wando Welch (from 135ft to 155ft lift height).

Looking further ahead the fill phase for the new Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal was completed in FY 2018 and the SCPA Board approved a $53.8 million contract for construction of the wharf structure for phase one of the facility, which has begun. The new terminal will open in 2021. By then the port hopes to have completed its deepening project “that will make Charleston the deepest harbour on the East Coast”.

The Leatherman terminal is not expected to complete its final phase until 2032, after which Chareslton will have a total capacity of 5.2M TEU (2.4M at Leatherman and Wando Welch and 0.4M TEU at North Chareslton). Although it has not been announced by the SCPA at this point, all of the container terminals at Charleston will be managed using Tideworks software.

With regard to the Jasper Ocean Terminal, the joint facility the Georgia Ports Authority and SCPA have agreed to build once their existing capacity is fully built out, Newsome said his “best estimate” is that Jasper will not be needed until 2035-2037.

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