Common-user system to give SPA more access to dock space

Charleston Post and Courier
Allyson Bird
January 13, 2011

A testament to a changing industry, the Port of Charleston next week will overhaul the way it handles the containers that cross its docks.

Currently some areas of local port terminals are licensed to shipping lines that, as part of their contracts, must meet a certain volume of cargo. Beginning Tuesday, those deals disappear in favor of a “common user” operating system in which the State Ports Authority manages and operates all container yards.

Three stevedore companies came together to form Charleston Gate LLC, which, through a public-private partnership with the SPA, will handle all trucks coming on or off terminals by staffing gates with union laborers. Larry Young, vice president and general manager of one of the stevedoring companies, SSA Cooper, said months ago that the common user concept previously applied to smaller shipping lines.

Today’s business climate calls for treating all customers the same.

While shipping lines wield less control over dock space, they also avoid rigid contractual obligations that can cost them money when volume declines, as it did in the latest economic recession. The advantage to the SPA is that it gets access to more space on its terminals when it needs it.

The phrase “common user” cropped up about two years ago when the world’s largest container carrier, Maersk Line, threatened to pull its business from the Port of Charleston. The Denmark-based company had asked for concessions for its declining volume brought on by the recession and the drop in demand for the oceangoing goods it transports.

The SPA offered to move the company’s leased operations from a dedicated area of the Wando Welch Terminal to the common user gate, but the International Longshoremen’s Association rejected that proposal.

After drawn-out negotiations, the SPA and Maersk reached an undisclosed agreement in October 2009 that kept the line’s business in Charleston.

Marc Niederer, head of Maersk’s North America Liner Operations, said Wednesday that his company would stop operating at the APM Terminals yard in Mount Pleasant as part of the new arrangement, under which APM helped form Charleston Gate. He added that Maersk and the SPA “worked together to develop this opportunity.”

Jim Newsome, who became chief executive of the SPA the month before the state agency and Maersk made peace, deemed the switch to a common-user business model one of his priorities.

The advantages include longer and uniform gate hours port-wide — 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and an immediate 10 percent jump in dock capacity, according to SPA spokesman Byron Miller.

Previously, several individual operators set their own times, making for fragmented access to the docks.

“That extra hour, hour and a half, is a big deal for the trucking companies,” Miller said.

Billy Adams, executive director of the S.C. Stevedores Association, said the new setup will put Charleston in line with Savannah’s operations, a neighboring port that saw considerable growth in the years when South Carolina floundered.

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