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Shipping backlog expected to continue for months

Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 4:12 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 21, 2022 at 9:45 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - It’s an unprecedented time for the shipping industry.

More than 25 cargo ships continue to be anchored off the Charleston coast waiting for a turn to unload. South Carolina Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome says the sheer number of containers coming in set a new record in February.

It’s the 12th new monthly record in a row.

“As of this morning, we have about 23,000 import containers at the terminals - about 8,000 of which are 15 days or more dwell times. That’s unheard of,” Newsome said. “We used to think of dwell times as three and a half to four days.”

The three Charleston ports moved 230,420 containers in February, up 26 percent year-over-year. Newsome says, traditionally, there’s always been enough ports, ships and trucks to handle all of the shipping is the country, but all of that has changed since the pandemic.

“Every ship that can be chartered to handle containers has been chartered. There’s not a spare ship in the world,” Newsome said. “Ships that use to be charted for $5,000 a day are being chartered for $150,000 a day.”

Newsome says some of the backlog is being caused by labor disputes along the West Coast that have forced some ships to choose other ports. He says this is the same backlog that was seen in Savannah last Summer and he says it will clear up as ships are routed to less busy areas.

“I think that we have been consuming as a country record amounts of goods in the pandemic. We couldn’t buy services so we bought goods,” Newsome said. “That led to the record volumes that we’re seeing across all forms. I think most experts would tell you that at some point we’ll go back to more normal consumption levels.”

Getting the containers off port property is an equally challenging endeavor with long lines of truck drivers waiting to pick up containers every day. Newsome says they need more truck driver to help clear the backlog.

The South Carolina Trucking Association agrees they need a lot more truck drivers.

Over the next few years, Rick Todd, president and CEO of the SCTA, says the country will need about 200,000 new truck drivers to fill the shortage and replace retiring truckers. However, he says there’s no point in having more truck drivers if the ports can’t get them loaded up in a timely manner.

“They’ve got to be able to count on volume and velocity and good pay to be able to make a profit and just file that capital expense and keep the drivers happy,” Todd said. “We’ve got limited hours available to us at the port. In terms of its operations. Customs is a nine to five. . . We’re going to have to evolve, I think over time into a much more expanded workday to allow everybody to be as efficient as possible.”

The port authority is working to make the terminals more efficient.

Newsome says they have expanded port hours on Sunday, are embarking on a rail project that will be able to move containers off site quickly and they’re working on updating their chassis pool critical for moving containers.

Those are long term projects. Newsome says the backlog won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

“I had thought we would be caught up by the end of April, I don’t see that happening now,” Newsome said.

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