Redevelopment and upgraded rail connectivity are a good start, but the one-time fishing harbor needs more funding to bring a regional vision to fruition.

Ten years ago, officials of Salem County, New Jersey, thought it wise to invest $40 million to upgrade the Salem Rail Line, a county-owned short line serving the small southern New Jersey Port of Salem, and secured funding for that purpose from the State of New Jersey and the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). The idea was to stimulate economic activity in an area with an eroding industrial base, notably in glass production. Up until recently, those investments might have been considered a bust, but recent developments in the burgeoning New Jersey offshore wind industry indicate they could start to pay dividends—if the port can make further improvements.

The Port of Salem, a one-time fishing facility that currently handles containers and dry bulk cargoes, is also the recipient of a 2021 U.S. Department of Transportation grant of $9 million—matched with an additional $6 million from the South Jersey Port Corporation—to lengthen a wharf, demolish old structures, and do some paving and fencing, as part of a larger plan to redevelop the port. These improvements will be of use in current port operations—but the port will need more if it is to play in the wind-energy game.

The Port of Salem is located conveniently in the Delaware River in Southern New Jersey
The Port of Salem is located conveniently in the Delaware River in Southern New Jersey.

The $300 Million “New Jersey Wind Port”

Current port users include Bermuda International Shipping Ltd., which carries 13,000 containers of perishables and consumer goods annually on a weekly service from Salem to Hamilton, Bermuda. U.S. Concrete barges 400,000 tons a year of locally quarried sand for construction projects in the New York metropolitan area, a volume that is expected to grow as spending from the federal multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure program starts to kick in.

Building the $300 million wind port seven miles down the road from Salem represents a significant expansion opportunity for the port. Major construction activities at the New Jersey Wind Port, located on an artificial island in the Delaware River, began in December 2021, and operations are scheduled to begin by early 2024. The Port of Salem figures to expand its portfolio to support the development of the New Jersey offshore wind energy industry by accommodating offshore wind component manufacturing facilities and with a rail-to-barge service to supply components to the wind port. The port’s improved rail connections could play prominently in that effort, finally justifying the $40 million investment.

“The rail system at the Port of Salem has been disused over the years,” said Brendan Dugan, assistant executive director of the South Jersey Port Corporation (SJPC). “It was upgraded based on the desire to generate economic development in Salem, which experienced a spike in unemployment when glass manufacturing facilities closed. There was some agricultural business that was handled by the rail line and the hope was that it would increase but it really hasn’t.”

Brendan Dugan, assistant executive director SJPC
Brendan Dugan, assistant executive director SJPC

With the upgrade in place, Salem can boast of some impressive rail connectivity, especially for a small port. The Salem Rail Line runs 19-miles northeast to Swedesboro where it connects to Conrail, which, in turn, hooks up with the Class I carriers Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation and the continental rail network. Also in Swedesboro, short-line operator SMS Rail Lines serves the Pureland Industrial Complex, a 3,000-acre facility that is home to over 120 companies, many of which utilize local rail/truck intermodal capabilities to distribute goods to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.

Now that the port has received grants for its revitalization, Dugan views Salem’s rail prowess as a key advantage, especially since the wind port will not enjoy that kind of connectivity. “There is not enough room at the wind port for all of the manufacturing required for regional offshore needs,” he said. “We view Salem as a potential manufacturing and fabrication site for secondary wind components. The rail line could be used to bring in steel to fabrication facilities, and the expanded berth can be used to barge finished components for final assembly at the wind port.”

Granting a New Vision for Salem

But the $15 million dollars now being invested in the port redevelopment will not be enough to bring that vision to fruition. The grants received were less than what the SJPC requested, and that necessitated scaling back immediate plans for the port. What was originally planned as a first-phase wharf expansion to 500 feet now stretches to 400 feet. Plans call for eventually expanding the wharf to 1,250 feet.

The port also had to scrap plans to acquire some backland acreage and had to put off dredging the four-mile stretch of the Salem River that leads to the Delaware River. Several parcels of abandoned industrial real estate could be put to use as sites for wind-component fabrication facilities and for cargo marshaling activities.

“The big nut to crack is the deepening of the Salem River,” said Dugan. With a 16-foot authorized depth and six-foot tides, the river has an adequate draft to accommodate wind-component vessels at high tide, a situation that presents obvious problems.

“Ideally, we’d like to bring down the depth another ten feet,” said Dugan. “That would also give the port more flexibility with regard to handling bulk and breakbulk cargo vessels.” But those plans—as well as further wharf expansion and acreage acquisition—will have to await the availability of additional funding.

Current developments and future plans for the Port of Salem represent one component of a larger SJPC strategy to position the southern New Jersey region and its ports to become an integral part of the nascent New Jersey offshore wind industry. “We view these various nodes along the Delaware River as part of a complete logistics chain,” said Dugan, “the wind port being one and the Port of Salem being another.”

SJPC’s Port of Paulsboro also has a place in this strategic picture, with a facility to manufacture monopiles—part of the foundation of offshore wind installations—currently under construction there. The Port of Camden could also be handling some wind components imported from overseas, according to Dugan, which could be floated by barge to the wind port or to the Port of Salem. As for further redevelopment at Salem, Dugan said, “SJPC is pursuing additional grant opportunities.”