Two decades ago, the port of Charleston was the fourth-busiest port in the nation – dominating container traffic in the southeast region of the United States.
Not anymore …
Charleston has been supplanted as the southeast’s regional powerhouse by the port of Savannah, which now does more than twice the business of its erstwhile rival (a gap that is projected to grow in the coming years).
According to the latest data, Charleston moved 2.8 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) last year – an increase of just 1.5 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, Savannah handled a record 5.9 million TEUs in 2022 – an increase of 5 percent from 2021.
In other words, during a period of peak economic uncertainty Savannah continued to grow faster than Charleston – which recently dredged its harbor to a depth of 52 feet and added a new terminal (albeit one with a serious organized labor issue).
Savannah’s lead is expanding, too. As I noted last spring, the jewel of the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) expects to be able to handle a staggering 9.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) by 2025 – which would be more than triple Charleston’s current capacity.
My news outlet has meticulously documented the ongoing bureaucratic mismanagement of this key economic asset for the better part of the past two decades – during which time political appointees at the S.C. Ports Authority (SCPA) have run this competitive advantage completely into the ground.
The collapse picked up momentum several years ago when former South Carolina governor (and current presidential candidate) Nikki Haley shamelessly sold out her home state. Haley’s betrayal cleared the way for Georgia’s recently completed, government-subsidized harbor expansion in Savannah – which it is following up with even more aggressive expansion plans.
Both Savannah and Charleston are facing stiff economic headwinds in 2023 – leading to a collapse in imports at both facilities. Things have gotten so bad Savannah recently announced the closure of its night gate “due to continued decline in volumes and continued reduction of night gate utilization.”
Still, Savannah can weather the coming storm far better than Charleston thanks to its superior supporting infrastructure. It also has room to grow when conditions improve.
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Charleston has no room to grow – and its supporting infrastructure is horrendous. As state senator Tom Davis recently pointed out, Palmetto State politicians keep trying to “shoehorn additional capacity” into Charleston – even though it clearly won’t fit.
Davis has been attempting to route future port expansion to a privately managed terminal in Jasper County, S.C.
Dating back to 2006 (the year Savannah overtook Charleston), this news outlet has called on state government to get out of the port business and allow private sector companies to manage port infrastructure. To be clear: I have no issue with taxpayers owning these assets, I just think they should be run by businesspeople – not a bunch of bickering, incompetent political appointees.
“South Carolina should not be in the port business – and the management and development of these competitive assets should be left exclusively to the private sector,” I wrote in the spring of 2021. “Allowing the private sector to manage the state’s port assets would not only enhance operational efficiency it could potentially free up potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for needed infrastructure enhancements.”
Will Palmetto politicians ever listen?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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