State boosts weight limit for truck containers

A pilot program to allow overweight trucks on South Carolina roadways -- a change with major business implications for the state -- became a permanent fixture this week.

The S.C. Department of Transportation announced Monday that truckers could get permits for all international shipping containers that weigh as much as 100,000 pounds. Federal law limits trucks to 80,000 pounds, but states can grant permits that allow extra weight for rigs carrying shipping containers.

South Carolina law previously allowed for up to 90,000 pounds, but Georgia granted 100,000, and North Carolina allowed 94,500. That meant the same load that requires 10 containers in Georgia demanded 12 in South Carolina.

It comes down to simple math: The more freight a shipper can cram into a container, the more efficient the load and the greater the profit potential.

Earlier this year SCDOT launched a pilot program that allowed refrigerated containers up to 100,000 pounds to be permitted and shipped by truck.

Chilled cargo generally is denser and heavier, so it requires extra work but, because it's primarily food, it maintains stable demand despite the recession.

The pilot permit program showed immediate results, according to State Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller. He said the agency's refrigerated cargo business tripled.

With the new permit applying to all international containers and not just refrigerated cargo, port officials estimate that export business could expand by 30 percent to 40 percent. Miller said that growth depends on developing relationships with rail-served warehouses and agricultural interests that increasingly use containers to move their goods.

"All of those products, especially for South Carolina industries, have not been able to participate in the export market because of the inland cost differential," Miller said. "At 90,000 pounds it's not like you're just getting 10,000 more pounds ... The margins are so slim on some of these large-volume, heavy products that we were essentially shut out of the market."

SPA Chief Commercial Officer Paul McClintock studied how market share for containers of export frozen meat and poultry changed over the past few years in Charleston and Savannah. In 2005 the two ports remained relatively close: Charleston claimed 41 percent, and Savannah took 59 percent. Last year Charleston accounted for only 13 percent of business, while Savannah owned the remaining 87 percent.

SCDOT Secretary Buck Limehouse said the 100,000-pound initiative began as a pilot within the refrigerated cargo sector because of safety concerns. Heavier loads means greater risks on roadways because trucks take longer to stop, but Limehouse said his office found no increase in accidents.

"We can raise the weight on all containers, and this will make Charleston as competitive as it once was," Limehouse said. "After we did the pilot program I felt comfortable going ahead with all containers."

Truckers can participate in the new program by contacting the department's Oversize/Overweight Permit Office.