By Kevin J. Walsh
The World Trade Organization estimated that the United States of America imported $1,936 trillion worth of goods in 2010 (WTO, 2010), more than any other single nation in the world, and only $41 billion dollars less than the entire European Union. Roughly 95% of those goods were transported to the United States on ships. In the 21st century, marine transportation systems have become complex, just-in-time operations that have been perfected by centuries of experience. There are many steps in the global supply chain, including planning, procurement, development, warehousing, and logistics, which lead to the delivery of the final product to the end user. At some point, the global supply chain will encounter the international maritime transportation system, and cargo will be carried in a container or in bulk form (liquid or solid) on a ship.
When these ships cross the threshold of New York Harbor they are entering one of the busiest seaports in the world. In 2009 it was ranked the 23rd largest port in the world based on total cargo volume. The American Association of Port Authorities ranks the Port of New York/New Jersey as the third busiest port in the United States, based on total imports and exports by weight (American Association of Port Authorities, 2010). New York Harbor is the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and it supports the most densely populated metropolitan area in North America. The journal of Commerce recorded that 4,811 ships entered the harbor in 2010, carrying over 32.2 million metric tons of cargo valued at over $175 billion (Leach, 2011). As such, New York Harbor is the backbone of the Northeast Region of the United States, and is considered a port of critical importance for commerce and national security by the U.S. Federal Government.
Almost 80% of all the cargo imported into the port of New York/New Jersey is marketed to consumers within 100 miles of the port, making it a critical element of the regional economy. Safe and efficient maritime commerce is essential to the growth and stability of this huge transportation hub. With so much vital transportation infrastructure surrounding the harbor such as Newark Liberty International Airport, the extensive railroad systems for Norfolk Southern and Conrail, the container terminals at Port Elizabeth, Port Newark, and the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island, the immediate area surrounding the port makes New York Harbor an ideal and desirable transportation destination. There is no other locale in the country that has more transportation infrastructure available to sea port facilities. Aside from the 693,031 cars, trucks, and buses the port imported in 2010, it also boasts having handled 5,292,020 loaded twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU’s) (Leach, 2011) more commonly called containers, in the same year.
Another major commodity imported into the port is bulk oil, both crude and refined products as well as chemicals. The Bayway refinery operated by ConocoPhilips is one of the largest on the East Coast and its production levels directly impact fuel prices in the region. Tankers carrying crude oil from St. Johns, Nova Scotia or the West coast of Africa are almost a daily presence in the harbor. The US Energy Information Administration states, “The New York Harbor area between New York and New Jersey has a petroleum bulk terminal storage capacity of over 75 million barrels (much of which is in New Jersey), making it the largest petroleum product hub in the United States (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2009).” In many instances loaded tankers carrying the oil that is so critical to our national security, pass in and out of the harbor with only 2 feet of clearance between the hull of the tankers and the bedrock at the bottom of the harbor. Ship captains rely on the skill and judgment of harbor pilots to ensure the safe navigation of the vessel so that the cargo can be safely transferred to shore side facilities.
Although the system that is employed in New York Harbor is nearly flawless, there are still several issues that are being addressed by the local Port Authority of New York/New Jersey and elected officials from both states. One problem that many ports are facing is the limited depth of the port’s navigable channels. Currently, New York Harbor is dredged to handle vessels with up to a 45-foot draft. As economies of scale are being maximized, vessels are getting larger with deeper drafts, and are approaching the 45-foot limit. The Port Authority has plans to dredge current channels to 50 feet to accommodate the larger vessels. With the completion of the New Panama Canal expected in 2014 many East Coast ports are scrambling to obtain new infrastructure large enough to handle the influx of these colossal ships. The Panama Canal is expecting to double its traffic once the new locks are completed. The “New Panamax” size for vessels will be 1,200 feet long, 160.7 feet wide, and 49.9 feet deep. An additional restriction is that vessels must have less than a 190-foot air draft. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is expecting container ships that can carry up to 12,000 TEU’s.
Another major obstacle for the Port of New York/New Jersey is the limited air draft of the Bayonne Bridge. Constructed in 1931, the engineers and architects who designed the bridge never could have imagined the size of cargo ships that would be destined for the Port. In the past few years several ships have struck the bridge because its 151 foot air draft is simply too small for the larger class ships that are calling on the port. In some instances vessels must wait for low tide to gain a few more feet of air draft so that the mast or antennas do not strike the bridge. The Port Authority of New York/New Jersey has announced plans to construct a new span over the existing bridge increasing the height of the air draft to 215 feet. This will allow the new class of ships to pass safely into Newark Bay and the massive container terminals, which are located on its shores. The Port Authority of New York/New Jersey has already earmarked $1 billion for this project, and the total cost is expected to reach over $3 billion upon completion of the new bridge. Global Terminal, however, has a strategic position within the port that allows ships to avoid contending with the Bayonne Bridge, and its terminal operators are taking advantage of it. Global has recently submitted a “permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to expand its existing wharf to 4,000 feet, long enough to develop a four-berth container port. Jim Devine, President and CEO of Global, said the project is needed to ensure the port, which generates $36 billion in annual business activity, stays competitive beyond 2014 when larger container ships will be in use (Hack, 2011).” With industry professionals and state and local politicians actively addressing the hurdles that face the Port of New York/New Jersey, the continued growth of the port is ensured, as well as the economic and national security issues of the surrounding region.
As the leading marine transportation hub on the US East Coast, New York Harbor is attempting to play catch up to ensure that it will remain the premier maritime transportation destination on the East Coast of North America. With its current place set within the global marine transportation field, these new improvements will drive the port among the elite of the world. New York Harbor is already rich with maritime history, and with the continued support from the State Governments of New Jersey and New York, and a strong backing from the Port Authority, there will be many more centuries of maritime history to be written.
Kevin Walsh is a 2005 graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, and holds a B.S. in Marine Transportation, and an M.A. from the American Military University in Transportation and Logistics Management. He is currently employed as a New Jersey State Pilot Apprentice at the Sandy Hook Pilots Association.
American Association of Port Authorities. Port Industry Statistics. October 22, 2011, http://www.aapa-ports.org/Industry/content.cfm?ItemNumber=900
Hack, Charles. (October 14, 2011). Global Terminal, which straddles Bayonne-Jersey City border, to double wharf space so it can accommodate big container ships. October 23, 2011,
Leach, Peter T. (March 3, 2011). Port of NY-NJ Containers Jumped 16 Percent in 2010. The Journal of Commerce Online – News Story. October 22, 2011, http://www.joc.com/maritime/port-ny-nj-containers-jumped-16-percent-2010?page=1
U.S. Energy Information Administration. (October 2009). New York. Independent Statistics and Analysis. October 22, 2010, http://www.eia.gov/state/state-energy-profiles.cfm?sid=NY
World Trade Organization. (March 26, 2010). Trade to expand by 9.5% in 2010 after a dismal 2009, WTO reports. International Trade Statistics. October 22, 2010, http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/pres10_e/pr598_e.htm