New Port Commerce Director Bethann Rooney tackles infrastructure, and environmental priorities.

When President Joe Biden and his administration began to confront the ocean transportation supply-chain problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, their central message to ports was that all stakeholders needed to talk to one another if the situation were to improve.

That was a lesson already learned at the Port of New York and New Jersey, where the Council on Port Performance—bringing together representatives of the Port Authority, terminals, truckers, rail operators, shippers, labor unions, and federal agencies—had been in operation for several years and helped maintain relative fluidity as cargo volumes fell and then spiked during the pandemic. The port is now additionally challenged by cargo increases brought about by shifts from West Coast ports—which have required some new approaches.

The council was the brain-child of Bethann Rooney, who in May took the reins of the port commerce department as director, capping a decades-long career at the Port Authority. Rooney started at the Port Authority in 1993, when she worked in marine terminal operations, before heading to property management and leasing. Later, she worked on intermodal transportation solutions, including the development of the ExpressRail system and the cross-harbor barge service, then became the PA’s point person on technology and efficiency. After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Rooney was appointed the Port Authority’s head of security, remaining in that position for 14 years until she was appointed the assistant port commerce director, where she concentrated on supply-chain optimization, environmental initiatives, policy, and legislation. As port commerce director, these and much more are now on Rooney’s plate.

Council on Port Performance

Right before the pandemic started, ironically, the Council on Port Performance made the decision to scale back the frequency of its meetings, a decision which it quickly reversed. “When our region became the epicenter of the pandemic, we made a decision to meet on a weekly basis,” said Rooney, “to provide status reports and to understand where the pain points were.”

An early concern was that, as the world shut down, ships would still be calling at the port, causing a backup of cargo in the terminals. “If there wasn’t enough warehouse space, we would then have ships backing up into the anchorage,” said Rooney. “So, the council identified every square inch of space that was available at the time in warehouses and empty storage yards.” That turned out to be over 90 parcels, which were made available to cargo owners who needed the space.

In 2021, the port experienced an unusual 18.5% increase in cargo volumes, over seven times its growth rate in recent years. “We did not have more than three or four ships at anchor at a time and they weren’t staying there for more than a day or a day and a half,” said Rooney. “We were pretty fluid, and I directly attribute that to the coordination, collaboration, communication, and transparency facilitated by the council.” Wait times at the…

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