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Port of Charleston looks to containers on barges as congestion grips Lowcountry highways

Wando Welch Terminal in Port of Charleston (Source: SC Ports)

Port’s growing base of automotive and other shippers needs better way to move freight as traffic woes mean Charleston is ‘not as quaint.‘

The Port of Charleston wants to put freight that comes in on the water, well, back on the water with a container-on-barge service, which is expected to be online as early as 2022.

The project, which could cost up to $100 million, would only take about one in five containers now being moved by truck off the road. But it underscores the need of U.S. port cities to get creative in dealing with increasing congestion brought on by growing container volumes and the resulting rise in drayage traffic.

The South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) submitted applications to state and federal regulators last month to build and dredge for a new wharf at the Wando Welch container terminal.

The wharf would be used for a tug-and-barge service that would bring up to 200 containers at a time to another container terminal now under construction on the Charleston peninsula.

The greater Charleston region is suffering from what Barbara Melvin, SCPA’s chief operating officer, called a “high-dollar problem” as its strong economy brings more congestion to the area, impeding freight traffic.

Charleston’s population grew 14 percent from 2010 to 2017 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The congestion is particularly felt on the I-526 belt that surrounds the Charleston region, and that is the main conduit for marine containers to reach rail yards.

As have its East Coast peers, the Port of Charleston has put up strong numbers this year with container volumes rising 6 percent to 2.3 million twenty-foot equivalents (TEU) for 2018.

“You have growth from freight, but you also have growth from residential construction and additional businesses,” Melvin said. “If you combine those two successes, you have an interstate that has become stressed, particularly at certain peak hours of the day.”

Melvin explained that the service as first planned will have two barges running between Wando Welch and the under-construction Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal on the Cooper River, handling both terminals imports and exports.

The project also encompasses a new intermodal container transfer facility to be operated by short-line railroad Palmetto Railways. The transfer facility would be connected to the Leatherman terminal via a closed road with yard hostlers ferrying containers between them.

 (Photo: SCPA)
(Photo: SCPA)

CSX (Nasdaq: CSX) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) will provide intermodal service out of the new yard. There is no word yet on what the two Class 1 railroads will do with their existing Charleston intermodal yards.

Norfolk Southern’s service connects to SCPA’s Inland Port of Greer, a major distribution hub for auto parts to BMW’s (FRA: BMW) nearby Spartanburg factory. CSX services the Inland Port of Dillon, near a major distribution center for Harbor Freight Tools.

The three nautical-mile transit would only take about forty minutes, but the loading and unloading of containers could still take up to four hours.

In contrast, truck turn times at the Port are about 30 minutes for a single move, she added. But the roughly 12-mile trip over I-526 to one of the existing intermodal yards can take anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.

About one-quarter of Wando Welch’s container moves go to intermodal rail. Melvin expects the barge service to take about two-thirds of that service, or roughly 384,000 TEU of containers at 2018 levels.

The high number of just-in-time shipments in the automotive industry and the need to meet specific train schedules will mean a large number of containers will still be drayed via truck.

 South Carolina’s Greenville County is a growing area of auto production ( Source: SONAR )
South Carolina’s Greenville County is a growing area of auto production ( Source: SONAR )

Melvin stated that some portion of Charleston’s other main freight categories – retail consumer goods, and food products – would also likely move to the barge service.

Once it’s running, the barge service does mean fewer overall loads for drayage drivers. But freeing up drivers now stuck in traffic will add truck capacity that can support the region’s overall growth, Melvin said.

Regarding the effect of barge service on driver jobs, “we don’t think it will,” Melvin said. “Truckers don’t make money when they are stuck in traffic.”

As for how much the new service will cost, Melvin stated that it is still being worked out, but it will be competitive with drayage service.

Jeff Banton, president of Charleston-based Atlantic Intermodal Services, said a drayage move from Wando to the railyards would cost about $200. But some independent drivers will charge as little as $85 to $100.

The upshot is that drivers try to get as many trips as possible, increasing the amount of congestion on I-526, particularly the portion spanning the troubled 30-year old Wando Bridge.

“These guys are flying on I-526,” Banton said. “There was a real big accident on I-526 recently that shut down traffic for four hours.”

Banton welcomes the new barge service to relieve capacity constraints from hours of service mandates. AIS, a division of IMC Companies, has a four-acre drop yard in Greer, near the inland port. Containers brought by rail to Greer can still be delivered by truck to Kentucky or Tennessee, and the driver can be home by night.

“It would hurt some of my neighbors, but I would personally like to see something like that happen,” Banton said. As a resident too, Banton looks forward to congestion relief.

“Charleston is quaint, but not as quaint as it was with 20 to 30 people moving in daily, many of them with cars,” he added.

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