Port of Wilmington leading pack in traffic growth
August 5, 2011By Ken Little
With the proposed “superport” in Southport on indefinite hold, the Port of Wilmington is proceeding with its own strategic plan to capture increased market share in the years to come.
Container traffic is on the rise at all major U.S. ports, and Wilmington is leading the pack.
According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, container traffic at the nation’s leading seaports rebounded as U.S. production activities began to recover in 2010.
In the first half of 2010, U.S. container ports handled a total of 110 million metric tons of containerized cargo, an increase of 15 million metric tons from the 95 million metric tons handled during the same period in 2009.
Nearly all U.S. container ports experienced an increased volume of container traffic, but Wilmington had the largest increase at 55 percent.
“The growth in container volume is a direct result of North Carolina ports being able to respond to the growing needs of North Carolina businesses,” Glen Carlson, chief commercial officer at the state Ports Authority, said recently. “New services provide better opportunities for the shippers and consignees.”
The volume increase is attributed mainly “to a continued upturn in international trade during the first two quarters of 2010,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics.
Carlson said this growth is a reflection of the strong global recovery in commodities such as wood pulp, shipped through Wilmington, and metal products and rubber imports, which are shipped via Morehead City.
This growth is supported by significant investments made in infrastructure, equipment and systems along with process improvements, he said, adding that the Ports Authority expects continued moderate growth through the year.
Even so, the 110 million metric tons handled nationwide in early 2010 was down 8 percent in comparison to the 120 million metric tons handled in early 2008.
But N.C. Ports Authority spokeswoman Shannon Moody said 2011 is shaping up to be a good year.
Moody said container volumes are up 14 percent so far over 2010. Breakbulk commodities, such as wood pulp and metal products, are up 53 percent over 2010.
“Financially, at the consolidated level, current year totals reflect a strengthened bottom line performance as compared to prior year levels,” Moody said. “The drivers for the operating revenues increase are improved business volumes coupled with cost containment measures.”
Harbor project a plus
Nearly $7 billion worth of goods are handled annually at the Port of Wilmington, helping make North Carolina the 10th largest exporting state in the U.S.
The ongoing Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement project will have a significant impact on the port’s current and future operations, Moody said.
The project, overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, includes deepening the ocean bar and Cape Fear River entrance channels to 44 feet, and widening the existing 400-foot wide channel to 600 feet over a 6.2-mile stretch of the river. Widening in five turns and bends in the river, along with one jetty channel to 500 feet over a length of 1.5 miles, is also part of the project.
Features yet to be completed include deepening the anchorage basin immediately upriver from the port authority dock from 38 feet to 42 feet, and extending the anchorage basin northward by 300 feet.
The work also includes deepening the 32-foot channel between Castle Street and the Hilton Railroad Bridge, the 32-foot turning basin just above the mouth of the Northeast Cape Fear River on the west side, and the 25-foot channel from the Hilton Railroad Bridge to 750 feet upstream, all to a 38-foot depth.
Ships getting bigger
Shipping lines are building larger ships that increase efficiency and profitability. Studies by the Corps of Engineers and the state Ports Authority show that deepening the shipping channel 4 feet to a depth of 42 feet “is essential to keeping current business and attracting new customers.”
The Corps said the 42-foot depth will accommodate 90 percent of the world’s shipping fleet and contribute $34 million annually in regional benefits, at an annual estimated cost of $26 million.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced last year that it will partner with the Corps of Engineers to look at how the existing port could be upgraded and made more accessible to increased traffic and larger vessels.
The study will explore the feasibility of modifying the alignment within the Bald Head segment of the entrance channel, the turn in the channel by Battery Island and the size of the existing turning and anchorage basin at the port. DENR officials said the feasibility study is limited to the above projects within the Port of Wilmington, “and follows public support for expanding the Port of Wilmington instead of pursuing a new international terminal.”
The attention to possible improvements at the port is welcome, Moody said.
Port planning continues
While the proposed international terminal in Southport may remain on the back burner for years to come, planning for the future at the Port of Wilmington continues, Moody said.
“We are focused on our current facilities in Wilmington and Morehead City, and looking to the results of the state’s Commercial Maritime Strategy study to aid us in future planning,” Moody said.
The study was launched earlier this year to evaluate the current and future role ports play in sustaining efforts to create jobs and strengthen the state’s economy. The study will look at needed port and distribution improvements geared toward giving North Carolina a competitive edge in the competition for international shipping.
Among those named to an advisory group overseeing the study is Wilmington City Council member Laura Padgett.
The study is scheduled to be complete by early 2012.
Meanwhile, the port is looking to bring new business clients to its docks. The port’s top trading partners include China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Belgium, Taiwan, Mexico, Columbia, Great Britain and Venezuela.
Its primary exports are phosphate, forest products, wood pulp, general merchandise, food products, wood chips and military materiels.
Primary imports include sulfur products, chemicals, grains, rubber, scrap metal, cement, metal products, machinery parts, ore, mica and schist.