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South Carolina's port agency reports strong 2013, prepares for bigger ships

South Carolina's port agency reports strong 2013, prepares for bigger ships

The State Ports Authority is gearing up for a "big" 2014 in terms of the size of ships it handles while also reporting gains across its operations in 2013.

The maritime agency told its board this week that its Charleston area terminals handled the equivalent of more than 1.6 million 20-foot-long containers in the last calendar year, up 5.7 percent from 2012.

For its fiscal year, which started July 1, the SPA reported a 5.4 percent increase in containers compared to the same period a year earlier.

On the financial side, the SPA booked nearly $75 million in operating revenue since July. That's up 9.3 percent from a year earlier but flat to slightly down from projections.

"We typically see a modest first quarter of the calendar year followed by a stronger second quarter, and we expect 2014 to follow a similar trend," SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said.

Much of the growth from April to June will be driven by exports and what Newsome called "mega-alliance deployments by ocean carriers, if approved."

Shippers are entering into those vessel-sharing pacts to reduce costs and operate more efficiently amid declining volume growth and overcapacity. The SPA has said the alliances should drive more big vessels to the Port of Charleston this year.

The ships on the shared-vessel agreements typically can carry the equivalent of at least 8,000 20-foot-long containers, part of the "Post-Panamax" class of vessels that more lines are using. Post-Panamax vessels are too long or wide to squeeze through the Panama Canal.

The trend adds pressure on the port to add more land-side capacity and make sure Charleston Harbor is deepened to 50 feet from 45.

The SPA plans to open a $700 million container terminal opening in 2018 at the southern end of the old Navy base in North Charleston. The dredging project is in hands of federal officials.

Bill McLean, chief operations officer, said the SPA's existing terminals also need work.

"We are in the process of assessing what kind of infrastructure we are going to have to have at our facilities. ... These terminals were designed for five-and-six-thousand (container) ships, and now they're going to be twice that," he said.

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