The president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority said the Port of Charleston can continue to grow its volumes above industry trend only if its harbor is dredged to the 50-foot depths needed to accommodate the larger vessels that will be plying the world's seafaring trades in the years to come.
James I. Newsome III told the South Carolina International Trade Conference at Isle of Palms Monday that a strong exporting region like the Southeast needs a harbor with a 50-foot depth if it is to attract the mega-ships that will be serving the East Coast once the expanded Panama Canal opens sometime in 2015. Newsome said the ports authority is "basing an aggressive business plan" on Charleston's having five more feet of water depth than its current 45-foot level at low tide, which is still the deepest channel in the Southeast.
Charleston today can accommodate vessels with 48-foot drafts but only during periods of high tides that last about two hours. Newsome said ships don't want to wait for high tide or be forced to enter and exit the harbor during specific times. A 50-foot depth will allow large vessels unrestricted access to the port, Newsome said.
The $5.5 billion Panama Canal expansion will enable ships carrying up to 13,000 twenty-foot equivalent units of containers (TEUs) to bridge the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Currently, the Canal cannot accommodate vessels larger than 5,100 TEUs. Work on the Canal is about three-quarters complete, Rodolfo Sabonge, executive vice president, market analysis and research for the Panama Canal Authority, told the group.
At this time, the ports of New York and New Jersey, Norfolk, and Baltimore have 50-foot depths. Port Miami is expected to reach that level by 2015.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is about halfway through a feasibility study to determine if the Charleston harbor should be deepened. The final report, due by September 2015, will identify the project's economic benefits and environmental impacts and establish a benefit-to-cost ratio that includes the mitigation costs needed to offset environmental impacts. Congress is responsible for authorizing projects like the harbor deepening under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The current version of the WRDA, which would authorize deepening the Charleston harbor, passed the Senate in May and is now moving through the House.
If all goes according to plan, the Charleston project should be completed by the end of 2018, according to Newsome. However, Corps officials have gone on record targeting 2020 as a completion year.
The South Carolina legislature has set aside $300 million in state funds for the estimated construction costs. Of that, $120 million will be spent only if federal funding doesn't come through. Newsome lauded lawmakers' commitment to the harbor-deepening project, saying he knows of no other circumstance where a state has been willing to pony up all the money for such a major initiative. However, he told the audience that South Carolina's citizens should not have to shoulder an additional $120 million burden given the project's economic benefits to the region and the country.
The Port of Savannah, about 100 miles to the south, faces a somewhat similar situation. Georgia port officials would like to deepen their harbor to 47 feet by 2016 or 2017. The port currently has only 42 feet of harbor depth and has been working for years to get adequate federal funding to deepen its harbor. Last fall, the port received final approval from the federal government to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River. But the funding in President Obama's budget proposal came in millions of dollars below what state officials hoped to receive.
Vessels in the 9,000 to 10,000 TEU range will be the initial workhorses when the expanded Canal opens, Sabonge told the conference Tuesday. But Newsome, in an interview Monday with DC VELOCITY at the port's Charleston headquarters, said 13,000-TEU vessels will eventually become the norm after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey completes a $1.3 billion project to raise the roadway on the Bayonne Bridge by 64 feet to create a 215-foot clearance at high tide to accommodate the bigger ships. The project is set for completion in late 2016.
Newsome said that ships transiting the Canal from Asia will likely call first at the Port of New York and New Jersey because it supports the nation's largest consumption base. From there, they will call at either Charleston or Savannah to load export tonnage, he said.
Newsome said the other two primary Southeast ports in a 350-mile radius, Wilmington, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., lack the infrastructures and the water depth to attract the mega-ships. Without that traffic, they cannot justify the investments needed to compete, he said. Savannah and Charleston are the nation's fourth and fifth busiest container ports, respectively, behind Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York and New Jersey.
Newsome dismissed Miami's contention that vessels will use south Florida as their first-in, last-out location with cargo radiating across the Southeast from there. "I don't believe in that thesis," he said.
Charleston handled 1.56 million TEUs in the 2013 fiscal year, which ended June 30, a 9- percent year-over-year increase and roughly double the industry average. It expects a 6 percent increase in TEU volumes for fiscal year 2014.