When a mammoth thousand-foot freighter slides into the Port of Wilmington, 10,000 shipping containers need unloading. That one ship requires 4,000 trailer trucks or hundreds of rail cars to empty the decks.
With the fastest turnaround time on the East Coast, truckers can offload and receive a shipping container in 30 minutes. Thanks to a new turning basin in the Cape Fear River and an uncongested harbor, the ship can quickly depart.
The trucks and trains leaving the port, however, face a gauntlet of city streets before clearing Wilmington. That hurdle was one of many discussed at a Sustainability Logistics Symposium hosted by Brunswick Community College on March 17 in Leland.
Trains currently crawl at 8 mph past the city’s 32 railroad crossings with horns blaring. A suggested rail bridge over the Cape Fear River would eliminate the route through downtown. “The cost would be almost the same as a vehicle bridge since you still have the major expense of purchasing property,” said Charles Edwards, logistics strategy director at the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT).
The estimate for building a new Cape Fear bridge, which Edwards called a “generational project,” is $1 billion.
And state funds are limited because of North Carolina’s massive infrastructure.
Edwards said North Carolina has the most miles of state-maintained roads in the nation except for Texas.
“The cost of building a two-lane road is $4 million a mile, and an interstate costs $15 million a mile,” he said.
Paul Worley, rail division director at NCDOT, said he is working on a near-term solution.
“We’re looking to eliminate crossings and automate others. Trains could then move quietly at 25 mph,” he said.
Once trains leave Wilmington, there’s a bottleneck heading to Charlotte. A hundred car trains cannot pass one another. Worley, a 29-year NCDOT employee, said that planning is underway with CSX to build a two-mile rail passing track near Pembroke to solve that problem.
Increasing rail use pays huge economic and environmental benefits according to Nathan Moorey, solutions engagement manager for UPS, who also spoke at the logistics symposium.
“UPS moves West Coast shipments with rail and still meets customer expectations while we reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “Ground [trucking] takes oneeighth the energy of air transport, and trains use one-fourth of the energy used for ground. Since 2010, we’ve avoided over 18 million tons of carbon emissions by shifting from air to ground and ground to rail.”
For the Port of Wilmington, it’s not just about moving goods to Charlotte. A massive logistics complex in Rocky Mount is expected open in 2019.
The Carolina Connector intermodal rail terminal will swap incoming containers for placement on other trains for delivery to destinations throughout the U.S.
“It will be a gateway connecting eastern North Carolina to CSX’s expansive railway system,” Worley said.
Currently, Wilmington’s port could handle more.
“In 2016 we handled 300,000 containers and generated $40 million in revenue. We can handle 600,000 containers,” said Cliff Pyron, N.C. Ports’ senior manager of external affairs.
With increased shipping through N.C. Ports, the Carolina Connector (CCX) facility will play a key role in helping the environment, officials said. A reduction of 16 million truck miles, or the equivalent of 270,000 fewer trucks, on road is expected.
Fewer miles and less engine idling could also reduce carbon emissions by 655,000 tons annually, officials said.
On a recent trip, Edwards asked business contacts in Dubai, “Why aren’t you shipping to Wilmington and instead fighting the delays and congestion in Savannah, Norfolk or Charleston. With the CCX, that link we can serve North Carolina and all of North America.”
That’s a question Edwards hopes not to ask too often in the future.