2007 Industry Report: Transportation

Foreign trade keeps companies on the go
By Kathy Brown

Moving Thoughts

TREND: A jump in international trade, especially from China, is bringing record revenue to state ports.

OUTLOOK: Waterborne imports and exports are expected to double in less than 15 years.

Foreign trade is making waves at state ports in Wilmington and Morehead City. In fiscal 2006, it helped boost the N.C. State Ports Authority to record revenue of $46.9 million, up 32% from the year before and the authority's biggest profit in 15 years. International trade is expected to double by 2020, mainly driven by China and India. "That bodes well for us because we have capacity," CEO Tom Eagar says.

Wilmington had a 24% increase in container shipments last year, and the authority will spend $140 million over four years to double its capacity to handle them. Four new electric container cranes, which are more efficient than older diesel-powered models, will bring total cranes to 11 early this year. In Morehead City, a 178,000-square-foot warehouse is under construction, and plans are moving ahead for another port terminal. It's expected to open in six to eight years. The authority is seeking a private partner to help operate it. In early 2006, the authority bought 600 acres near Southport for a deep-water port. After it opens - possibly in 2016 - it could generate nearly 50,000 jobs statewide.

There is a cloud on the horizon. Housing starts are down, which could curb lumber imports, one of Wilmington's main commodities. But Eagar projects more growth in cargo and revenue this year. "It's really quite a phenomenon, developing as a result of the growth in international trade, and that's all because of China." In 2006, China was Wilmington's top trading partner and Morehead City's No. 3.

Truckers also are benefiting from trade with China, says Charlie Diehl, president of the 500-member North Carolina Trucking Association. Diehl cites Longistics, a trucking and logistics company. It saw so much potential business coming from China that it helped form the North Carolina China Center to promote stronger economic and trade ties with the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Duane Long, CEO of Longistics and chairman of the center, set up the center at his company headquarters, near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The trucking industry still has some problems, including a shortage of drivers and federal rules that mandate low-sulfur diesel fuel and less-polluting engines, which raises costs. Fortunately for truckers, the price of diesel fuel began to fall in late 2006. North Carolina's largest trucking company, Thomasville-based Old Dominion Freight Line, thrived last year despite those obstacles. Through three quarters, revenue was up 24% to $960 million from the period in 2005, and net income was up 40% to $55 million. "The fuel cost increase has not affected Old Dominion significantly because we have been successful in passing that cost to shippers in the form of a fuel surcharge," says Wes Frye, chief financial officer.

The average drop in fares at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport last year was the third-largest in the country, Aviation Director Jerry Orr says, because of the restructuring of Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways, the airport's busiest carrier, as a low-cost carrier and the entry of JetBlue and AirTran into the market. Passenger boardings were up 5% through November, but cargo traffic was down 6%. US Airways made an $8 billion bid in mid-November for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, then raised it to $10.2 billion in January. If the merger happens, the resulting company is expected to reduce its flights out of Charlotte.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport also added JetBlue. Passenger boardings through November were up 1%, but cargo traffic was down 2%. Things are different at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro. For the first 11 months of 2006, cargo traffic was up 4%, but passenger boardings were down 17%. Airport officials say many passengers drive to Charlotte and Raleigh for lower fares.