Growth is the key word at ports throughout the Southeast U.S. as they invest billions of dollars in ambitious infrastructure projects designed to accommodate larger ships, more cargo, and accelerating economic development activity. An ambitious approach to capital developments is necessary for ports in the region to keep up with growing volumes and the increasing capacity of the container ships that the ports need to attract to their terminals. For ports, that means always looking to the future and planning for what comes next.
“The size of the container ships that are out there crossing the oceans have grown a lot faster than you can redo terminal infrastructure, so you can’t just say, ‘What do we need today?’” says Russell Held, vice president of Economic Development for the Port of Virginia. “You’ve got to always be looking ahead to what we need 10 or 15 or 20 or more years from now and build toward that.”
According to the Journal of Commerce, ports in the Southeast will invest more than $850 million in 2021 alone in infrastructure projects designed to help terminals handle multiple vessels of 14,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) and higher simultaneously. For example, Ports America Chesapeake, the operator of the Port of Baltimore, is investing more than $166 million in upgrades that will allow for the loading and unloading of two large container ships at once. Here are how some other key ports in the Southeast are expanding to boost economic development in their regions:
$2 Billion Investment in SC Ports
Two hugely impactful projects will be introduced this year in Charleston by South Carolina Ports that will bring more freight through the Southeast. Liz Crumley, communications manager for the South Carolina Ports Authority, says SC Ports is investing more than $2 billion overall in infrastructure to handle larger ships and more cargo.
In March, the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal in Charleston will become the first container terminal to open in the United States since 2009. The terminal at full build-out will double the port’s existing capacity.
In addition, the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project will lead to a 52-foot depth in 2021, enabling mega container ships to access port terminals no matter the time or tide and giving the port the deepest channel in the Southeast for the time being. Widened turning basis as part of the deepening project will allow two cargo ships to comfortably pass each other and turn near the Wando Welch Terminal, which is also seeing a series of enhancements designed to handle large ships efficiently.
You’ve got to always be looking ahead to what we need 10 or 15 or 20 or more years from now and build toward that.
Russell Held, VP, Economic Development, Port of Virginia
Crumley says the projects provide crucial value to SC Ports’ global competitiveness: “SC Ports’ investments will equip the Port of Charleston with some of the tallest ship-to-shore cranes on the East Coast and impressive big-ship capabilities…The opening of the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal and densification of the Wando Welch Terminal will provide capacity and efficiency for customers.”
SC Ports’ infrastructure investments will enable SC Ports to handle four 14,000-TEU vessels simultaneously. SC Ports will also be able to handle a 19,000-TEU vessel, something few other U.S. ports can accomplish. Meanwhile, SC Ports is expanding Inland Port Greer, one of two inland ports with overnight rail service with the Port of Charleston to handle growing cargo volumes.
According to Crumley, the economic development benefits of SC Ports’ newest infrastructure improvements are evident: “Companies planning to invest millions of dollars in a new manufacturing facility or retail distribution center need the confidence that their products will quickly arrive at their destinations…SC Ports offers well-run terminals, ensuring goods will be efficiently moved between global markets and the booming Southeast consumer base.”
Tampa Bay Adds to Container Terminal Footprint
Port Tampa Bay has been busy. The port saw 33 percent growth in its container business in 2020. Port Tampa Bay’s newest facility developments are positioning it for future growth both at the port and in the region.
Lisa Wolf-Chason, director of port communications at Port Tampa Bay, says the port recently completed 25 acres of additional paved storage to bring its total container terminal footprint to 67 acres — and the port has plans to add another 30 acres. In addition, the port will add a third berth, which will mean three large ships can be worked on at the same time at the port; a new container gate complex; and two additional gantry cranes. Port Tampa Bay now has full on-dock intermodal capability with the addition of 17,000 linear feet of rail adjacent to the container terminal, and construction is about to begin on a new on-dock rail-served trans-load warehouse.
Companies planning to invest millions of dollars in a new manufacturing facility or retail distribution center need the confidence that their products will quickly arrive at their destinations.
Liz Crumley, communications manager, South Carolina Ports Authority
Wolf-Chason says Port Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest cargo tonnage port, handling 33 million tons of cargo per year. The port is also a major shipbuilding and repair center and cruise home port.
Through its sheer size, Port Tampa Bay is equipped for expansion. The port has more than 1,000 acres of industrially zoned land adjacent to deep water with highway and rail access. Approximately 300 acres currently are available for expansion of existing facilities and new manufacturing, warehousing and distribution projects.
“These expansion projects are critical to our ability to keep pace and continue to efficiently serve the Tampa/Orlando I-4 Corridor, Florida’s distribution hub,” Wolf-Chason says. “This region is home to the largest concentration of distribution centers in the state, with close to 400 million square feet of space and is one of the hottest industrial real estate markets in the country, with another 10 million square feet currently under development.”
Georgia Ports Boosting Regional Economy
In 2020 the Port of Savannah added three new ship-to-shore cranes, giving it a total of 34. With the new cranes, the port’s Garden City Terminal can serve 15,000-plus TEU vessels more efficiently, says Robert Morris, chief communications officer for the Georgia Ports Authority, bringing faster vessel turn times and more scheduling flexibility.
In addition, the Georgia Ports Authority has opened Phase I of its Mason Mega Rail Terminal. The project will increase the rail lift capacity at the Port of Savannah to two million TEUs per year. Another key intermodal project, the Appalachian Regional Port, an inland intermodal yard in Northwest Georgia, opened in 2018 to serve nearby portions of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Morris says the latest infrastructure developments represent an important boost to the regional economy. Savannah is the most westerly major port on the East Coast, giving it an edge for speed to market with shorter overland routes to major inland destinations.
According to Morris, “Added capacity and more efficient handling act as a draw for additional cargo. Each container moved via the Port of Savannah means jobs and investment beyond our gates. Port activity in Georgia supports nearly half a million full- and part-time jobs across the state and more than $120 billion in commerce annually.”
The developments are attracting businesses. General Electric has located its $32 million Southern Logistics Center in Murray County, just two miles from the Appalachian Regional Port, and Huali Floors is establishing its first U.S. headquarters and manufacturing facility in that area.
Virginia To Have Deepest East Coast Harbor
From 2014 to 2024, the Port of Virginia will have invested nearly $1.5 billion in improvements designed to handle more cargo and larger ships. That includes roughly $800 million in its two primary container terminals — Virginia International Gateway and Norfolk International Terminals. Among the most eye-catching projects is the dredging at Norfolk Harbor that will deepen the channel to 59-plus feet, allowing it to surpass Charleston as the deepest harbor on the East Coast. When the dredging is complete in 2024, the harbor will be able to accommodate two ultra-large container vessels at the same time.
Savannah is the most westerly major port on the East Coast, giving it an edge for speed to market with shorter overland routes to major inland destinations.
In addition to waterside developments, landside developments include investments outside the gate to improve truck throughput at the Richmond Marine Terminal and doubling capacity at the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal, where an intersection of interstate and railroad serves as a key jumping off and collection point for cargo in the state.
Economic Development VP Held says renovation and expansion work throughout the Port of Virginia includes modernization of equipment and automation of terminal activity and gate functions to ensure fluid cargo movements. In total, projects will allow the port to process an additional one million containers annually. As a result, “through record volumes month after month, we’re seeing no effect as far as congestion on the terminals,” Held says. “Because of the investments we made, we’re seeing that cargo fluidity, and that gets the attention of the shippers and the cargo owners that are looking for a fluid place to do business.”
Held also notes that partners in the region play a vital role in accommodating larger cargo volumes and economic development projects, such as by increasing rail and interstate capacity and preparing shovel-ready sites for new business locations.
“It’s all of these pieces together,” Held explains. “It’s terminal infrastructure, it’s outside the gates, it’s in the water with the expansion of the channels, it’s road, it’s rail — all the planets are aligning right now.”
For the Port of Virginia and other ports throughout the Southeast, growth is showing no signs of slowing and the demand to keep up with it — and with their peers — only appears likely to intensify.