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North America’s Fourth-Most-Productive Port Hungry for Cargo Share

With cargo ship bottlenecks and the ongoing risk of labor strikes, West Coast port issues have left many importers looking for an alternative for shoring their goods. And the West Coast’s loss is Wilmington, N.C.’s gain.

Located at the confluence of the Cape Fear River, the Intracoastal Waterway, and the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington has served as a key East Coast port since the Revolutionary War. And in recent years, the North Carolina State Ports Authority (NCSPA) has invested significantly in making Wilmington not only a viable option for importers looking to sidestep traffic jams on the West Coast, but also a player on the eastern seaboard.

“Over the past five years, the North Carolina State Ports Authority has invested over $256 million in capital improvements to handle the largest vessels transiting the East Coast,” said Christina Hallingse, NCSPA communications manager.

Those improvements include berth renovation and expansion, growing the berth to 2,650 feet to allow operation of two ultra-large container vessels. Turning basin expansion and harbor enhancements allow for 14,000 TEU and larger ocean vessels to turn around in the Wilmington Harbor safely and efficiently. And the addition of three Neo-Panamax Cranes and the raising of power lines to a clearance of 212 feet have helped make the port friendlier to ultra-large ships.

The port also significantly increased capacity in its refrigerated container yard, with 27 more racks, increasing capacity to 760 fixed plugs. Phase two of the expansion approved by the NCSPA will add an additional 720 plugs.

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But perhaps one of the most important, and the most recent, enhancements the port has completed is the new South Gate Container Complex, which opened in February.

“This new complex increased inbound lanes for truck traffic from four to seven, and outbound lanes from three to six,” Hallingse said. “In addition, the complex incorporates RFID technology, weigh-in-motion scales, optical character recognition, and new terminal and gate operating systems.”

The new operating system allows the port to harness real-time data to give companies a clearer picture of the status of their cargo entering and exiting the gateway.

“With the new operating system, we’re about to help some trucking companies drill down to what their drivers were experiencing at our gate,” said Hans Bean, NCSPA chief commercial officer. “Is your cargo at the gate, on the truck—we can provide that information now.”

But attracting major shipping players takes more than physical improvements at the port level. Being able to easily transport cargo from ships to inland destinations has also been on the list of improvements for the NCSPA. The state’s inland port in Charlotte has become a key asset, sitting on 20 acres at the crossroads of the I-77 and I-85 corridors. And last year, Wilmington launched a direct connection to Chicago via rail, in addition to existing service from Norfolk Southern on the East Coast.

“CSX rail has really proven itself to be a good product, a good five-day product,” Bean said. “That’s a huge factor in attracting more ocean carriers.”

With all these improvements, along with a yet-to-come Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project conditionally funded, the Wilmington Port has positioned itself as a viable alternative both to West Coast ports, and to other East Coast harbors like New York and Baltimore. So far, the port has partnered with CMA CGM, the third-largest carrier, to host six vessels that will call the port home.

CMA CGM saw the value in Wilmington and wanted to test their containers,” Bean said. “Service is a mid-Atlantic rotation, which is unheard of. We have been inserting ourselves into the carrier network dialogue as forcefully as we can.”

The partnership is an important step in allowing Wilmington to compete with other Southern ports, such as Norfolk, Charleston, and Savannah, which handle a combined 21.6 percent of U.S. imports and exports, according to IHS Markit.

But where they lack in volume, the port has made up in speed. In 2019, the Journal of Commerce ranked Wilmington’s container terminal as the most productive port, and in May 2022, the World Bank Group and S&P Global Market Intelligence Container Port Performance Index (CPPI) ranked Wilmington as the No. 4 most-productive port in North America and 49th most-productive port in the world. The port boasts 39 net crane moves per hour and turn times of 19 minutes for a single turn and 32 minutes for a dual turn.

“Our brand is speed, and with that hopefully a reduction in pain and cost you’re experiencing in other ports,” Bean said. “How fast we turn slips and how fast we turn trucks—that’s a big key in reducing pain.”

Moving forward, the port plans to continue making its case to carriers while investing in expansion and upgrading facilities. The United States Army Corps of Engineers is currently working on completing the comprehensive environmental review process for the Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project. Port authorities anticipate that process to be completed in 18 to 24 months, potentially opening the gate to create a more efficient channel and modernize the port.

And while the Wilmington port won’t overtake West Coast ports or even larger East Coast outfits anytime soon, for now, that’s not really the goal. Instead, it wants to offer companies more choice in how they import and export their goods.

“We want to provide something different,” Bean said. “We want to provide speed, but also the tools to see through these data-driven lenses to emphasize your business. We’re still in the early phases of our journey, and as we come out of the backside of COVID, there’s tremendous opportunity for value here versus the congested gateways.”