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David Pendered

North Carolina’s new study on port expansion bears attention

By David Pendered

For some odd reason, the folks in North Carolina think they are able to build a deep water port that could rival Charleston or Savannah for the massive vessels expected to sail through the expanded Panama Canal.

The Old North State even issued last week a draft copy of its governor-sponsored study into the possible project: “North Carolina Maritime Strategy.” Public comment sessions continue this week.

This possible port development is barely mentioned in Georgia, where the public discourse is of competition between Charleston and Savannah. Sometimes there’s a nod to a potential ocean port in Jasper County, S.C., which could complement the Savannah port along the shared river.

Yet North Carolina bears watching – the state is a fierce contender that already is a regional leader in areas including scientific research and development, banking and finance, transit and tourism.

Emerging megaregions

Represented in green, the Piedmont Atlantic megaregion stretches from Raleigh to Bimingham. Credit: North Caroline Maritime Strategy

In addition, Raleigh is to anchor the northern end of the megaregion dubbed the Piedmont Atlantic. This sprawling population center is expected to form over the coming decades, with Birmingham at its southern tip. Atlanta and Charlotte will be major urban areas in the center of the region.

The North Carolina ports now do not have the connectivity to transport a major portion of goods to the population centers of this megaregion, according to the study. Indeed, much of the North Carolina market now is served by the ports near Norfolk, Va., the study showed. Better networks of road and rail would have to be established to deliver goods to and from an expanded North Carolina port.

Georgia faces a similar problem, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s recently released freight study. The system of roads and rail that delivers goods to and from Savannah’s port need to be expanded, the study showed.

Click here to read North Carolina’s draft maritime study.

Click here to read Georgia’s freight study.

NC rail map

North Carolina could expand rail capacity to link its seaports with existing rail junctions in Fayetteville and Raleigh. Credit: North Carolina Maritime Strategy

Nonetheless, North Carolina’s state government and business leaders have both the tools and wherewithal to establish the capacity of rails and highways to get product to and from the state’s seaports.

For instance, the North Carolina draft study determined that Wilmington’s potential port development could be enhanced by related projects including expanding the airport to handle jumbo planes; adding rail track to connect to existing rail junctions in Fayetteville and Raleigh; and increasing the number of cruise ships that use the port.

The North Carolina draft study looked into six potential ports and determined that four are viable candidates for development.

Three sites are near Wilmington, along the Cape Fear River. The fourth is near Morehead City. Two sites along the Neuse River were dismissed as economically unfeasible.

Wilmington now is a major seaport that developed as the steamship era replaced sail, making it feasible to transport ladened vessels up river.

Wilmington’s port handles less cargo than Savannah, but it is of a similar type – container cargo, break bulk, and bulk. Container cargo is that which is transported in the types of trailers that can be towed by a truck on a road. Break bulk is transported on pallets, boxes or bails. Bulk is loose material that can be shoveled, scooped or conveyed by a belt into a cargo hold.

Savannah, in addition to these types of cargo, handles refrigerated cargo and containers that can be rolled on and rolled off a vessel.

Morehead City is not a likely candidate for expansion to handle the larger vessels expected through the enlarged Panama Canal, according to the draft study. The port is almost deep enough even today, but trucks and trains have difficulties reaching the port, the study found.

The Morehead City port is served by roads that handle a tremendous amount of beach-bound tourism traffic, in addition to all the traffic heading to the ferry that connects the mainland with the Ocracoke, the southernmost village on the Outer Banks. The train track that serves the port runs down the middle of this divided road.

The two sites that were discarded are along the Neuse River. The Neuse helps form the Pamlico Sound, which is the body of water that’s separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the Outer Banks. These two sites were found to be too costly to build because of the massive dredging required to connect them to the ocean.

North Carolina’s port development study identified six sites that could be developed as harbors deep enough to accommodate large vessels. Sites 1 and 2, on the Neuse River near the center of this map, have been dismissed as unfeasible because of the cost of dredging. Credit: North Carolina Maritime Strategy.

David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.



  1. writes_of_weigh March 5, 2012 12:57 pm

    NC ports?………not a serious threat to Georgia’s efficient ports(which now include an inland port at Cordele), along with new proposals(the St.Marys river shared port)((is there a lesson to learn in attempting to share a new port with South Carolina?)). To wit……roughly three years ago, all rail access to NC ports was blocked, simultaneously no less, by a failed Norfolk Southern Ry bridge near New Bern(which co-incidentally is operated over the state of NC owned r-o-w there), and by a derailed CSX freight train, closer to CSX’s (Wilmington) Acme yard, which serves Sunny Point and the greater Wilmington area. There might have been possible salvation in re-routing trains, but, unfortunately, NC permitted abandonment of potential vital reroutes, when it allowed the railroads to “walk away” from serving NC coastal areas with the de minimus level of utility possible. Now the powers that(would like to)be in NC rail circles, have bamboozled the FRA and other federal and state entities into buying into the idea that high speed rail which might one day connect the Atlanta I-85 corridor to Washinton, DC and the northeast corridor, is BEST ROUTED via a dog leg circuitry through Raleigh. It wont cost but a couple of extra hours on what was otherwise envisioned as a potential “high speed” route.
    I reiterate, NC ports?…….not a serious threat. NC rail and transit planners. Flim-flammers, for sure.  Report


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