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South Carolina ports tapping rail and inland hubs more in 2019

Short-haul trucking demand at Port of Charleston sees light volatility during first half of 2019.

(Photo: SCPA)

The South Carolina Port Authority (SCPA) said ocean container moves were up 9 percent in its fiscal year, setting a volume record for the port. 

The Port of Charleston’s two main container terminals, Wando Welch and North Charleston, saw 2.4 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in container moves last year. 

The region’s freight moves represent broad slices of the economy. Boeing produces the Dreamliner 787 in Charleston. Mercedes and Volvo also both produce cars in South Carolina.

The outlook for those shippers, though, is mixed. Boeing won a new round of orders for the Dreamliner in June. But Mercedes parent Daimler AG (FSE: DAI) has warned of slower demand in the second half of 2019.

The port also touted the increasing role of intermodal rail in moving boxes off of the docks.

The SCPA said Inland Port Greer saw its busiest year ever with 143,204 containers moved in fiscal 2019, a 22 percent increase from last year. Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) serves Inland Port Greer, which is also a distribution hub for parts going to BMW’s (FRA: BMW) Spartanburg factory.

Inland Port Greer is near the I-85 corridor, approximately half-way between Charlotte and Atlanta and within 500 miles of 94 million consumers, the SCPA said. 

Trucking demand out of the Inland Port Greer region dropped in July after a relatively healthy June. The Outbound Tender Reject Index for Greenville, South Carolina, (SONAR: OTRI.GSP) last sat at 4.09, compared to a six-month high of 7.60 in June.

The state’s other major intermodal hub, Inland Port Dillon, saw about 30,000 rail moves in fiscal 2019. CSX (Nasdaq: CSX) provides intermodal service to Inland Port Dillon.

Overall, the SCPA said the volume of freight moving on rail is at new highs, with 330,000 rail moves in fiscal 2019, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all containers coming through the port.

The growth of intermodal rail out of the port appears to be smoothing out volatility in the local trucking market, but demand spikes are recurring. The Local Outbound Tender Rejection Index (SONAR: COTRI.CHS) hit its highest 2019 year-to-date level in June.

“Our container business handled a record amount of cargo, our inland ports in Greer and Dillon both had strong growth year-over-year and our rail program moved more cargo than ever before,” said Jim Newsome, chief executive of SCPA.

He said, “As we head into fiscal 2020, we will continue investing in our infrastructure to handle growth, as well as supporting our employees and the entire maritime community who make these significant achievements possible.”

Among SCPA’s main capital projects are the Hugh Leatherman Terminal, a 286-acre container terminal, along with adjacent roads and a near-dock rail facility. With construction starting this year and ongoing dredging of the harbor, the Leatherman terminal is expected to increase capacity 50 percent by 2021. 

SCPA is also improving its Wando Welch Terminal, which handles close to 80 percent of freight moving through Charleston. When the improvements are completed in 2020, the terminal will be able to service three post-panamax ships at one time. Those improvements include wharf upgrades, five additional ship-to-shore cranes, raising the height of four existing cranes, and additional cargo handling equipment.