CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Amid a crisis in the American supply chain, the Port of Charleston is proving to be a strong link that is helping to keep the goods flowing. However, that success is not without challenges.
South Carolina Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome said the import supply chain is like a traffic jam on the highway today. The problems are layered, and not confined to any specific part of the country. COVID is the primary cause.
“We bought a record number of goods because we couldn’t buy services,” said Newsome. “People were on Zoom, they were buying couches because they couldn’t go to the movies or a football game.”
A record amount of imports from Asia are now testing and exposing those weak links in our ability to get the couches we bought, into our living rooms.
However, we’re not seeing scores of ships anchored at sea, waiting to get into the port to be serviced. In places like Los Angeles and Long Beach, there are nearly 100 ships waiting. Even Savannah is experiencing delays, but to a lesser extent. Meanwhile, it’s all ahead forward in Charleston and Newsome says it is because of investment in their infrastructure, including the opening of the Hugh Leatherman Terminal (HLT), and the completion of other projects just in time.
“We invested $2 billion over six years to get where we are today and that’s a big lift for the port, we had a lot of help from the state so we built the infrastructure; that’s served us well and it will serve us well into the next decade,” said Newsome.
The SC Port is not without some challenges. The HLT is operating, but well shy of what it is capable of. Legal issues between the port and the International Longshoreman’s Association are limiting HLT capacity.
“We’ve got one ship a week over there, we need three or four ships a week,” said Newsome. “It’s a great terminal, the most modern terminal on the east coast or in the country for that matter, so there’s no reason for it to be underutilized so we’ve got to get that resolved.”
There are also some towering illustrations of the supply chain struggles at the Wando Terminal. Building-sized stacks of containers that seem to go on forever. Last year at this time they averaged 40,000 containers at the terminal, today that number is 60,000. Their average stay is also doubled from four to eight days.
Not enough warehouse space is forcing truckers to search for chassis — which are in short supply — to carry containers on the roads. Newsome said these are challenges that will continue for the near future, but it’s also a signal to port customers that it may be time to re-evaluate where their goods are sent here in the United States.
“Forty percent of the import freight goes through Los Angeles and Long Beach, 70 percent of the people live east of the Mississippi River, that’s what drives retail consumption, so why is 40% of the cargo going through L.A. and Long Beach? There’s no reason for that, it should get closer to where it’s needed and that provides an opportunity for us,” Newsome said.
Newsome added that all of these problems are solvable, but we shouldn’t expect it to happen quickly. The pressure on the chain won’t let up until the demand for these goods goes down.