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Port of NY/NJ benefits from the past, looks forward to the future

Oct 03, 2017

Port Industry Day for the Port of New York/New Jersey highlights how decisions made 20 years ago enable the port to handle today’s mega ships. And now port leadership is looking at the next 30 years.

The raising of the Bayonne Bridge at the port of New York and New Jersey port has been years if not decades in the planning—as is the case with many port infrastructure improvements—but the completion of the project in this case delivered almost immediate results.

The $1.6 billion raising was completed on June 8, 2017 and within days the port began seeing vessels of 10,000 TEU and up calling on the port. Before the raising, the largest ship to sail under the bridge was 9,400 TEU. Three short months after the Bayonne Bridge’s June completion, on September 7, the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, a 14,414-TEU vessel, called on the port of New York and New Jersey.

A side effect of such rapid results is to make stakeholders nervous that the port may not yet be prepared to handle the spikes in volume delivered by the super ships. This, despite the fact that the port of New York and New Jersey—along with its peers elsewhere around the country, and together with the Federal Maritime Commission and the United States Department of Transportation, among others—have been working assiduously to improve systems, implement technologies, and invest in infrastructures which would improve port throughput. A representative sample of those stakeholders expressed their concerns at the 17th annual NYNJ Port Industry Day which took place October 2, 2017 in Jersey City, N.J. (See sidebar.)

Bridgework

As ships grew in volume over the years the air draft under the Bayonne Bridge, where vessels transit on their way to the Newark Bay ports of Newark and Elizabeth, became problematic as masts and antennas began scraping the bottom of the bridge. The Bayonne Bridge project, which was funded exclusively with Port Authority funds, was three years in the planning and four in the building. And, by the way, it’s not done yet, noted Bethann Rooney, assistant director of the Port Commerce Department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“The second span for vehicular traffic is still underway,” she explained. But the aspect of the project providing navigational clearance for vessels is finished. The full project is scheduled to be completed in 2019.

In a sense, the Bayonne Bridge situation was a blessing in disguise for the port of New York and New Jersey, because it clued the port early on into what the future held. “When ships got to 7,000 TEU and started hitting the underside of the bridge,” related Rooney, “we began a dialog with the ocean carriers and in those discussions, we learned that ships would be getting ever larger.”

When the Port Authority designed the new bridge, it was being told that ship sizes would cap out at 12,000 TEU. That’s now ancient history. In 2012, 84% of the cargo handled at the port was carried on vessels of 6,000 TEU or less. Today, that figure is 28%. Two years ago, only 35% of the container vessels calling on the port were of 8,000 TEU or larger. So far in 2017, it’s 60%.

Given the breathtaking speed at which container ships were growing, the approach taken by NYNJ, was to take a long look into the future. “We decided we needed to go well beyond the minimum capabilities the carriers were telling us,” said Rooney.

Cargo continues to grow at the port even as the number of ship calls decline. August 2017 was a record breaker at the port with an increase of 7.5% in cargo, even as the number of vessels serviced fell by 18%.

Containers tend to dominate port talk these days, but the port of New York and New Jersey handles the full spectrum of cargo. “The port would not be what it is today without its auto business,” Rooney told the Port Industry Day audience.

What is in the tea leaves?

And, while bulk cargoes are down at the port at the moment, bulks might be one of the waves of the future, together with containers, at least according to the tea leaves that Rooney is reading. The growing on-demand economy is symbolized not only by the explosion of e-commerce but also by the increasing sophistication of 3D printing and the emergence of 4D printing, a futuristic concept that posits printing objects that reshape themselves or self-assemble over time.

Currently, lots of spare parts for cars, boats, airplanes, and machinery enter the port of New York and New Jersey in containers. But what if, in the future, these parts will be printed on the spot, instead of being imported?

“We have to question whether we will continue to see the same kind of annual growth in container volume we’ve seen year after year,” said Rooney, “or whether there be less finished goods.”

If that’s the case, the port of the future may be handling more imports of bulk materials and will need to be responsive to that eventuality. “We are taking issues like that into consideration right now,” said Rooney, “as we develop our master plan for the next 30 years.”

Goals for that endeavor include land use optimization and “getting more bang for the buck,” said Rooney. “We need to adjust to how the industry is going to look 30 years from now.”

In the shorter term, Rooney predicted that the port of New York of New Jersey will be elevated from its current third-place position among U.S. ports—behind Los Angeles and Long Beach—to number two “in the not too distant future.”

It was 20 years ago or so that port leaders saw the need to deepen the channels and raise the Bayonne Bridge in order to accommodate developments that are unfolding today. “Thirty years from now,” said Rooney, “I hope our successors will stand up here and be able to thank us for the foresight to figure out what we needed to do.”

Author Photo
Peter Buxbaum
American Journal of Transportation
NORTHEAST CORRESPONDENT

Peter Buxbaum has been writing about international trade and transportation, as well as security, defense, technology, and foreign policy, for over 20 years. Besides contributing to the AJOT, Buxbaum's work has appeared in such leading publications as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Computerworld, and Jane's Defence Weekly. He was educated at Columbia University.

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