The South Carolina Ports Authority said Tuesday it is reviving long-dormant plans to build an inland port in Greer that would make it easier for many shippers to drop-off and pick-up international loads by essentially bringing the Port of Charleston closer to them through a truck-rail interchange facility.
The news follows this year's launch of a rail drayage program to further improve the efficiency of intermodal container movements and make the port more attractive as a destination for ocean carriers that want to bring bigger vessels from Asia to the East Coast with the opening in 2015 of a larger set of locks in the Panama Canal.
On Monday, the port authority's board of directors authorized the negotiation of a preliminary engineering contract to build a $23.5 million intermodal terminal for the port at a 100-acre site acquired 30 years ago for that purpose. The concept is similar to the Port of Virginia's inland port in Front Royal, Va., which enables shippers to save on trucking costs by swapping containers with freight rail that connects to marine terminals in Norfolk and Portsmouth 200 miles to the east.
By extending its reach northwest, the port authority intends to serve importers and exporters in upstate South Carolina and adjoining states using existing rail service operated by Norfolk Southern along the I-26 corridor between North Charleston and Greer. Officials say development of the facility has the potential to take 25,000 trucks off the highways in the near term and 50,000 trucks over time, in the process reducing congestion and diesel emissions.
"The idea is to get empty shipping containers closer to customers that need them. Containers can be stored at the inland facility and then exporters can get equipment there rather than from the port 200 miles away," spokeswoman Allison Skipper said.
The lack of easily available container equipment has been a major bugaboo of exporters for many years because inbound containers are typically routed to population centers where imports are consumed, including major port cities, but are not near manufacturing and agricultural production sites spread across the hinterlands. The imbalance has created headaches for shippers and carriers reluctant to pay the added expense of moving empty containers around the interior of the country to match with an outbound load.
The inland port also has the potential to free up capacity in Charleston as container volumes grow because boxes will be immediately placed on rail to Greer rather than dwell on the wharf, where land tends to be more expensive, Skipper said.
Shippers in the Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. markets, as well as eastern Tennessee that currently transport cargo by truck or rail to Charleston are among those that could find the inland port useful, she added.
Charleston is already served by rail from Atlanta through Greer and Norfolk Southern is in the process of building a large intermodal facility in Charlotte, but an inland port can create added density on the Charleston route and potentially reduce the per-unit cost for rail customers.
Greer also sits along the I-85 north-south corridor, which is projected to be the fastest growing area in the Southeast during the next 20 years, port officials point out.
The new facility will be operated by the port authority, which is one of the few in nation that has a direct hand in the management of terminals.
"The successful growth of intermodal container movements in our state and the region requires the development of state-of-the-art container handling facilities in the interior able to ground loaded and empty containers, and leverage the efficiency and sustainability of rail transportation," Port Director Jim Newsome said in a statement.
The engineering study by Patrick Engineering will define the land footprint required to support the facility, identify what infrastructure is needed, and firm up cost estimates and time projections. Skipper said the port authority is accelerating the development process and hopes to have the facility running within 12 to 18 months.
The port authority's $147 million capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes $23.5 million for the project. It is part of a 10-year, $1.3 billion capital plan to upgrade and expand the port.
The money will come from port revenues and bonds the port authority has the power to issue. But the port plans to apply for the next round of TIGER grants from the Department of Transportation to defray some of the cost.
TIGER is a discretionary program begun in 2009 to distribute funds on a competitive basis for multi-modal, regional projects that normally don't qualify for federal highway aid distributed to states from fuel and other taxes through a formula arrangement.
Meanwhile, Newsome told American Shipper
the port authority in January began a match-making service for intermodal shipments that need to be trucked from Charleston to rail terminals in North Charleston.
The port authority is offering to contract with truckers and manage dispatch of containers on behalf of ocean carriers to eliminate unnecessary re-positioning of containers and make short-haul shuttles between the port and the rail facility more efficient. Absent a centralized view of truck availability and tendered containers, individual carriers were responsible for paying roundtrip truck moves with one leg of the trip involving an empty container. The service is designed to offer the same type of convenience as on-dock rail, which is unavailable now and in the future at the Wando Welch terminal due to the property's configuration, neighborhood encroachment and local ordinances.
The shuttle service is also available at the North Charleston terminal.
So far three carriers are participating in the program, and Newsome said he hopes to have it completely rolled out by the end of the year after other container lines have had more time to review the program.
Having two one-way moves cuts the overall transport costs and reduces the amount of trucks on the road, he said on the sidelines of a freight industry conference in Chicago two weeks ago. - Eric Kulisch