June 13, 2018 9:45 AM, EDT

South Carolina Ports Break May Volume Record Despite Key Bridge Closure

Wando River Bridge over I-26 in Charleston Trucks travel over Wando River Bridge on Interstate 526 in Charleston during a partial closure in late May.(South Carolina Department of Transportation via YouTube)

Despite the partial closure of an important interstate bridge in the Charleston area, South Carolina ports broke their May record for the volume of containers handled.

The South Carolina Ports Authority announced June 11 the ports handled 197,437 containers that are 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) during May, setting a record for the month and marking the second-highest month of container traffic in the ports’ history.

May’s volume was 8.2% higher than the same month last year. The ports’ all-time record, 199,659 TEUs, was set in March. This record-breaking success comes despite challenges posed by a partially closed bridge in Charleston — home of the state’s busiest port — during the last half of the month.

Port of Charleston

Trucks arrive with containers to be loaded onto a ship at the Port of Charleston. (South Carolina Ports Authority)

The South Carolina Department of Transportation closed the westbound portion of the Interstate 526 bridge over the Wando River on May 14 after agency officials discovered a broken cable within the bridge’s structure.

“In spite of the Wando Bridge closure during the last half of May, we achieved very strong volumes for the month,” SCPA President Jim Newsome said. “We very much appreciate the flexibility and dedication shown by truck drivers, Charleston Gate, our own employees and the entire maritime community in moving containerized freight under what were adverse conditions for the majority of the month.”

According to SCPA, an increased deployment of large container ships to the East Coast contributed to the ports’ success. SCPA oversees two seaports, Charleston and Georgetown, and two inland ports, Greer and Dillon.

With 10 distinct terminals, Charleston is also South Carolina’s largest port. According to SCPA, its top exports are paper products, auto parts and lumber. It ranks No. 8 on the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of top 10 U.S. seaport districts in dollar value of goods handled, with $69.96 billion.

The I-526 bridge over the Wando River reopened June 2. It had been functioning since May 20 in a limited capacity, its two eastbound lanes condensed into one so that traffic moving westbound could travel on the other lane. I-526 forms nearly a complete loop around Charleston, and the bridge over the Wando River forms a direct link to the Wando Welch Terminal, the port’s largest terminal in terms of volume and physical size.

In a briefing May 31, South Carolina Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said groups of engineers worked at an accelerated pace to both repair the bridge and conduct an analysis of why the cable snapped in the first place. She said the teams will also analyze other bridges throughout the state.


Wando River Bridge over I-26 in Charleston

Traffic travels over the Wando River Bridge on Interstate 526 in Charleston. (South Carolina Department of Transportation via YouTube)

“We have made significant progress on collecting and organizing historical records relating to the I-526 bridge over the Wando River,” Hall said. “We will not stop on our efforts to keep these bridges for years to come.”

Hall previously described efforts to channel traffic around the partially closed bridge as an “all hands on deck” affair.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Departments of Public Safety and Natural Resources were among the groups that monitored the situation.

“It was just one of those things where all the stakeholders, from the state DOT to the governor’s office to the maritime community and particularly those resilient truckers, all pulled together and just worked their way through it like they do with everything else,” said South Carolina Trucking Association President Rick Todd.

According to Todd, the I-526 bridge is a vital conduit for truckers hauling everything from chemicals and rubber to forest products. National Bridge Inventory data shows that more than 31,000 vehicles move across the I-526 bridge each day.

Todd said the partial bridge closure did not hamper traffic too severely once officials and drivers acclimated to the reduced capacity.

“It just slowed everything down. It was a major disruption for the first day or two until they figured it out and then they got it going two ways,” Todd said. “The supply chain is just full of challenges and this was just another one of them, but everyone did what they could do best they could, and got along and now we’re back to normal.”