The pandemic-spawned import booms, capacity shortages and shutdowns have proved again and again the rigidity of port and supply chain infrastructure. After all, the port industry plans its infrastructure decades in advance, so increasing capacity overnight is nearly impossible. Some ports more than others, however, have demonstrated agility and operational foresight.
In an exclusive interview with FreightWaves, Jim Newsome, CEO and president of South Carolina Ports Authority, unpacked three causes of congestion challenges. He also details how the SC Ports infrastructure investments of over $2 billion are actively improving the handling of cargo volumes and helping ensure capacity and berth availability, as cargo ships are growing to handle up to 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent units.
“We really had no idea what a pandemic would look like,” said Newsome. “We were positively surprised starting in August 2020, because unforeseen to us, people were at home working on Zoom, probably looking around their house and not liking what they saw. So they started buying stuff for their homes. If you look at the fastest-growing commodity, it is furniture by a long shot, and most furniture is made in Asia today.”
Not only did consumers begin focusing on goods rather than services, they were doing more online shopping than before. Online sales in 2021 are expected to surpass 2020 by up to 23%. This growth created a demand for e-commerce distribution warehousing and slowed movement of containers at terminals. Newsome recalled a recent Prologis study that said the current warehouse shortage was 300 million square feet. Rising imports and the need for more distribution centers can increase import dwell times.
Newsome also believes that after 30 major retailers — like Amazon, Walmart and Target — were deemed essential businesses, there was a rise in global imports, since large retailers tend to participate in more global sourcing than small retailers.
With foresight and luck, SC Ports launched Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal in March 2021 — the first greenfield port container terminal in the U.S. in more than a decade. Phase 1 of its opening adds 700,000 TEUs of capacity to the East Coast port market, including a 1,400-foot berth, five ship-to-shore cranes, 25 hybrid rubber-tired gantry cranes and a large container yard.
“As the logistics industry deals with rising volumes amid the ongoing velocity slowdown, the need for more capacity across the supply chain is more evident than ever,” Newsome said. “SC Ports has strategically invested in port infrastructure, ensuring it has the capacity today to efficiently handle growing cargo volumes and rising retail imports for customers.”
SC Ports will be hiring 150 new people this year to ensure enough operators for each machine at its container terminals. That is key to getting trucks turned around quickly, a boon to both the bottom line and sustainability.
“Believe it or not, the major thing that a port can do to positively influence its emissions is to make sure trucks get in and out fast,” Newsome said.
It will be 2030 before the United States sees another new terminal the size of Leatherman, which will offer 2.4 million TEUs of capacity. In 2015, because a growing number of Asian imports were arriving through East Coast ports, SC Ports began this proactive $2 billion infrastructure campaign. It included not only the new terminal build-out, but also the modernization of the Wando Welch Terminal and expansion of Inland Port Greer — the rail-served inland port in upstate South Carolina, which can access 94 million consumers within a one-day truck trip.
“Inland Port Greer enables us to get a quantity of containers off our port terminals and into the inland port where they’re needed for customers,” said Newsome.
While the momentum to use East Coast ports for Asia imports was growing pre-pandemic, the surge of import demand during the pandemic reversed the trend back to the West Coast. However, the well-documented 65 (and counting) container ships at anchor off the coast of California reveals that strategy isn’t working so well, either.
“While 50% of the cargo going into the United States passes through three gateways, people are now starting to shift back to the East Coast and particularly the Southeast where we have population growth,” Newsome said. “The Southeast will continue to grow above the market through next year. South Carolina Ports has berth availability, cargo capacity and efficient operations to keep the supply chain fluid for retailers.”