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Volumes at Virginia, South Carolina ports reflect East Coast challenges, opportunities

Ports are racing to ‘ensure fluidity for our customers and cargo owners’

Processing containers at the Port of Charleston. (Photo: Shutterstock/Mariusz Bugno)

The East Coast ports have been facing higher volumes as shippers seek to avoid congestion at the West Coast ports. That increased activity has resulted in volume growth at some ports — and processing backups at others.

‘Most productive July’ at Port of Virginia

July was a record month at the Port of Virginia, with the Norfolk complex handling nearly 318,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, a 8.4% gain over July 2021. 

Last month was “the most productive July in the port’s history,” and it was the fourth consecutive month that volumes exceeded 317,000 units, the Virginia Port Authority said Wednesday.

Of that total, July loaded imports were 149,829 TEUs, up 4.8% year over year. Meanwhile, loaded exports totaled 85,170 TEUs, up 5.1% from a year ago.

Container tonnage climbed 5.7% to 2.2 million TEUs but breakbulk tonnage slipped 17.5% to 7,402 TEUs.

The port thinks 2022 could potentially be the best performing calendar year on record, especially if business remains strong during the peak retail months that lead up to the holiday season, according to Stephen A. Edwards, Virginia Port Authority CEO and executive director.

“What we are seeing is growing interest from ship lines and cargo owners that are working to restore some predictability and reliability to their vessel services and supply chains. We have a proven track record of success in what remains a challenging trade environment and the result is growth at the Port of Virginia,” Edwards said. 

He noted that the port has brought on 10 new vessel services in the last 12 months, with five of those brought on within the last five months. 

July volumes rise at South Carolina Ports following June dip

Congestion at some of the East Coast ports has caused volume throughput to slow down — something that the South Carolina Ports Authority is trying to improve.

SC Ports handled 216,097 TEUs at the Wando Welch, North Charleston and Leatherman terminals at the Port of Charleston in July, up 10% from June’s total of 196,225 but down 11.7% from July 2021’s total of 244,821 TEUs. 

SC Ports also handled 119,872 pier containers in July, up 9.8% from 109,124 pier containers in June but down 12.6% from 137,158 pier containers last July.

To improve supply chain flows, SC Ports has extended Sunday gate hours for motor carriers, and that extension will last through at least the peak season. SC Ports also said it has been giving berth priority to vessels taking out more cargo, launched a port-owned and port-operated chassis pool and hired more employees to handle the influx of cargo. SC Ports also said it has significantly improved rail dray dwell times. 

SC Ports said there have been no vessels waiting to berth since early May, even though supply chain challenges exist at other East Coast ports. 

“We are continuing to be adaptive and responsive to ensure fluidity for our customers and cargo owners,” SC Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin said in a news release. 

In addition to these operational changes are capital investments, including new ship-to-shore cranes. SC Ports says there are 15 such cranes now at the Wando Welch Terminal. Together, these cranes will enable the terminal to work three 14,000-TEU vessels simultaneously.

The last crane was installed recently at the waterfront. 

“It is truly remarkable to see the final crane of our new fleet moved into place on the Wando Welch Terminal wharf. This is the culmination of years of effort, planning and coordination by our team and project partners,” Melvin said. “Our modern equipment provides smarter operations and more fluidity for the supply chain.”

The cranes are part of a $500 million investment to modernize the terminal. Other improvements will include new container-handling equipment, a modernized container yard and refrigerated cargo yard, improved traffic patterns and IT systems, a strengthened wharf and an on-terminal transload facility for mega retailers, SC Ports said.

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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.