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SC Ports to construct intermodal facility to serve Charleston

Authority also outlines growth prospects in annual state of port address

View from a ship-to-shore crane at Wando Welch Terminal. (Photo: SCPA/English Purcell)

The South Carolina Ports Authority is developing rail and barge projects aimed at supporting the growth of imports and exports through the Port of Charleston. 

SC Ports will be partnering with Palmetto Railways, CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) to develop the Navy Base Intermodal Facility, which will provide near-dock rail to Charleston. 

The facility will be located 1 mile from the Leatherman Terminal, with containers moving to and from it to the new facility on a dedicated road, according to SC Ports. Rail-mounted gantry cranes at the facility will lead containers on and off trains. 

Following phase one of the project, port officials expect the facility to boast nearly 80,000 feet of rail track and a capacity of 1 million rail lifts. 

In addition to constructing the intermodal facility, SC Ports will also be developing an inner-harbor barge operation that will serve the new Navy base facility. The barge enterprise will act as a marine highway between the facility and the Wando Welch and Leatherman terminals, easing pressures on the port complex’s trucking capacity.

The new intermodal facility and barge operation are scheduled to open by July 2025.


South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and officials from SC Ports Authority, Palmetto Railways, CSX and Norfolk Southern break ground on the Navy Base Intermodal Facility. (Photo: SCPA)

Officials said the project will position the authority’s facilities to remain among the top U.S. ports in processing containers because it will add capacity so that it can handle existing volumes while also attracting new customers. 

SC Ports is the eighth-largest container port in the U.S. but the only one on the East Coast without on-dock or near-dock rail.

“This resolves the last remaining competitive disadvantage we have as a major East Coast container port,” SC Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin said in a news release. “This critical infrastructure project will greatly enhance SC Ports’ capacity, allowing imports and exports to swiftly move between the hinterland and the Port of Charleston.”

The South Carolina Legislature and Gov. Henry McMaster have allocated $550 million for the project, with $400 million earmarked for the rail yard and $150 million for the barge operation.

A rendering of the Navy Base Intermodal Facility. (Image: SCPA)

SC Ports eyes growth opportunities following historic 2022

SC Ports timed the announcement of the new intermodal facility and barge operation to align with its annual state of the port address on Monday in Charleston.

Monday was the first time Melvin delivered the state of the port address since her appointment in October 2021. 

The address came off the heels of SC Ports’ “most successful fiscal year in history” in 2022, with volumes of 2.85 million twenty-foot equivalent units up 12% year over year from the previous period. The authority’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. The complex also set records for 11 of the 12 months, SC Ports said.

As the number of ocean vessels waiting to dock grew, shrank and then grew again over the fiscal year, SC Ports said it sought to keep operations fluid by reducing dwell times and improving motor carrier turn times. It also said it opened gates seven days a week for motor carriers, hired more than 150 people in operations and deployed “creative berthing measures” among other initiatives.

SC Ports also invested $200 million into its chassis pool that it owns and operates to ensure availability. There are more than 4,300 chassis on the road and, by next spring, SC Ports’ SMART chassis pool will sport 13,000 for the Southeast market. 

“Challenging times call for creative solutions,” Melvin said. “We had to be flexible, adaptable and responsive to our customers’ needs to restore fluidity to Southeast supply chains. Because of the amazing effort from our team and partners, we have maintained berth availability and terminal capacity since early May. We are the only major East Coast port without ships waiting to access our terminals.”

SC Ports also has invested more than $2 billion into its port complex, consisting of operations at the Port of Charleston, the Port of Georgetown and facilities in Dillon and Greer. 

In addition to the planned Navy Base Intermodal Facility, the port authority has added a berth at the Leatherman Terminal, modernized the Wando Welch Terminal so it can handle three 14,000-TEU vessels simultaneously and is currently expanding Inland Port Greer.

Meanwhile, the Charleston District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to complete the deepening of Charleston Harbor this fall. The project will make Charleston the deepest harbor on the East Coast at 52 feet and  allow the port to handle mega vessels.

“We have made smart investments to expand and enhance operations, which has proven critical as we seamlessly handle bigger ships and record cargo volumes,” Melvin said. “We are boldly investing in port infrastructure to grow our port system and further support port-dependent businesses in South Carolina and beyond.”

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.