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April 8th, 2004, 11:32 AM
April 8, 2004

New York-New Jersey Port Has Record Cargo Volume


ELIZABETH, N.J., April 7 - The value of cargo moving through the New York and New Jersey port in a year reached the $100 billion mark in 2003, a record for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The amount represented a 12 percent increase over the previous year and continued a stretch of more than five years in which the volume of imports and exports moving in containers or in bulk has grown, according to Port Authority figures.

As in previous years, the growth was the result of increased automobile imports and exports, rapidly increasing imports of goods manufactured in Asia, a brisk consumer demand in the United States for those goods and a rise in the number of all-water services offering shipping to the New York port, the busiest on the East Coast.

Richard M. Larrabee, the Port Authority's director of port commerce, said Wednesday that the shipping companies, which handled some 4 million cargo containers and 55 million tons of bulk cargo last year, had become "very efficient" in meeting the new demand and managed to undercut West Coast companies by as much as $600 per container.

In previous years, the release of the annual cargo statistics for the region's ports was a low-key event in which Mr. Larrabee, with the aid of graphics and computerized presentation software, held a briefing in a conference room at the port agency's Manhattan headquarters. But this year the announcement was made by Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey, who stood on Wednesday at the port offices of the APM Terminal of the Maersk Sealand company before floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked two large container ships and gigantic machinery being used to load and unload them.

"Last year's achievements have had a great economic impact," said Mr. McGreevey, who sought to contrast New Jersey's job growth, in an economy anchored by the port, with slower job growth nationally. "New Jersey now has the opportunity to capitalize on those achievements and bolster our economic growth with the right kinds of investments."

To that end, he said, the Port Authority's current budget included more than $305 million in capital expenditures to deepen berths and channels to accommodate larger vessels, expand dockside storage and cargo handling and increase rail access in and out of the port.

Because the New Jersey side of New York Harbor has more land available for building than the New York side, it has been the scene of nearly all of the port's expansion over the last two decades to meet a soaring volume of containerized cargo. This gave the state a "strategic advantage" in the economic sweepstakes, said Mr. McGreevey, who noted that the port operations generated $9.4 billion in wages annually and $22 billion in other economic activity.

The Port Authority chairman, Anthony R. Coscia, a New Jersey lawyer who was appointed by Mr. McGreevey to the agency's 12-member board of commissioners, said there was potential for doubling or even tripling the value of goods passing through the port by making capital improvements that are planned or envisioned.

In 2002, an increase in cargo volume nearly swamped the port, generating complaints by truckers that getting in and out of the vast terminals was more trying than gridlock on city streets. But since then, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority, terminals have extended their hours, more than 1,200 additional longshoremen have been hired and improvements in rail handling and port roadways have eased some of the problems.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

April 8th, 2004, 02:22 PM
Fantastic for the region! If only exports could keep pace with imports--the unused containers are piling ever higher and higher along the Turnpike.

April 8th, 2004, 03:15 PM
I know im from Jersey City. When i get off the exit for 15E the containers pile higher and higher every time

May 28th, 2004, 11:47 PM
May 29, 2004

To Bolster Competitiveness, Dredging Is Planned in Bay


ELIZABETH, N.J., May 28 - Hoping to gain a competitive edge in international shipping, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey signed an agreement on Friday with the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen channels around New York Bay to 50 feet to accommodate a new generation of extra-large cargo ships.

At the same time, Gov. James E. McGreevey, citing terrorism concerns, called on federal officials to do a better job of inspecting cargo streaming into the Port of New York and New Jersey, the largest port on the East Coast.

"The same way we focus on international airport traffic, we need to focus on cargo traffic," Mr. McGreevey said shortly after a dockside news conference at the Port Authority Marine Terminal.

The governor noted that while ship manifest lists are closely scrutinized, workers are scanning only about 5 percent of the cargo that comes into Port Newark-Port Elizabeth. He said that figure should increase about fourfold.

"Right now, we're investigating the manifest, investigating the paperwork that comes through this port," Mr. McGreevey said, "but we need to do a better job of literally hands-on investigating the cargo."

The agreement reached by the Port Authority and the Army Corps opens a period when the corps can begin awarding contracts for the deepening of the channels, which currently have depths ranging from 30 to 45 feet. Dredging to deepen the channels is expected to begin in early 2005 and the entire project - which will include the Ambrose, Anchorage, Kill Van Kull, Newark Bay, Bay Ridge and Port Jersey channels - is scheduled for completion in 2014.

The Army Corps and the Port Authority will split the $1.6 billion cost of the project.

Saying that the project was essential for local ports to keep pace with counterparts in Norfolk, Va., and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mr. McGreevey said the project was overdue.

"If we don't have these 50-foot dredge depths we're not going to be competitive," he said. "This is an exercise in common sense. This is an exercise in ensuring the economic vitality of the port."

Currently, the Port of New York and New Jersey provides more than $20 billion in economic benefit to the region and roughly a quarter of a million jobs. Officials said that over the next half century, the deepening of the channels will more than double the number of jobs.

Governor McGreevey, on hand to witness the signing of Friday's agreement, was joined by public officials from both sides of the bay, including Democratic Representative Robert Menendez and Republican Representative Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, both of New Jersey, and Democratic Representative Jerrold L. Nadler, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, who called the agreement "a great milestone."

"We must stay a step ahead of all our rivals," Mr. Nadler said, referring to commercial ports around the country.

More than 42 million cubic yards of sediment will be removed as part of the dredging. Officials said the material would be reused in various ways, ranging from creating fishing reefs to capping landfills, including Fresh Kills on Staten Island.

Over the past few years, as officials began considering plans to dredge, environmentalists had expressed concern about the effects of the effort on the region. Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group based near the Jersey Shore, said she supported the project, with one stipulation.

"We have no problem with deepening the harbor," Ms. Zipf said. "It just needs to be in compliance with the law."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

November 21st, 2004, 11:56 PM
November 22, 2004

New York Port Hums Again, With Asian Trade


Bob Nixon, a manager at a terminal on Staten Island, on a crane built to handle the largest cargo ships.

The Kill Van Kull: Making The Cut (http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2004/11/22/nyregion/20041122_PORT2_GRAPHIC.html)

The deck of the freighter Hyundai Glory was stacked so high with cargo - acres of containers packed with shoes, toys and living-room sets - that it was hard to see how the ship stayed afloat as it glided into New York Harbor after a 23-day trip from China.

The arrival of the tremendous ship, nearly as long as the Chrysler Building is tall, drew almost no notice one recent day, except from some cruise passengers who waved excitedly. But it was a testament to something equally enormous, and perhaps as overlooked, happening in the Port of New York.

The sprawling harbor, which transformed New York into a world commercial capital in the 1800's, fell into a humiliating slump in the second half of the 20th century as other North American seaports thrived, particularly on the West Coast and in the South. But the tide has reversed for New York, driven by the explosion of trade with China, which each year is manufacturing a larger share of goods for American stores.

Trade through the port, which was shrinking or flat a decade ago, has grown faster in the last five years than at any point since just after World War II. The rate of that surge - a 65 percent increase in overall container traffic since 1998 - has been nearly twice the national average, and faster than that of any other major East Coast port except Savannah, Ga. Last year, $100 billion worth of wares moved through the port, up 12 percent in just a year.

That new bustle signals a startling change in global shipping. Vessels like the Hyundai Glory, one of eight floating warehouses that form a weekly shuttle called the NYX or New York Express, are sailing directly from Asia, taking what used to be a prohibitively time-consuming route across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic Coast.

These so-called All Water Route services to New York have cut traveling times so drastically that many goods once unloaded in California and carried across the country by train are now shipped straight to New York; there are nearly 20 lines today, most of them started in the last five years.

Having cut labor costs, New York is winning the confidence of ship lines, manufacturers and merchants, effectively becoming a satellite of the Pacific Rim. Last year, four centuries after being settled by the Dutch, a milestone was reached: New York became an Asian-dominated port instead of a European one.

It is uncertain whether the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was caught off-guard by the strength of the resurgence, can exploit or even handle all the trade headed its way. But it is straining to respond. The authority and the operators of ship terminals that lease its land have begun $1 billion worth of expansion projects, including towering new cranes, bigger railyards, and new and enlarged wharves, a waterfront investment that is financed in part every time a commuter uses a bridge, tunnel or regional airport.

As the ships become larger, too, the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers have embarked on one of the most extensive and expensive harbor-dredging projects in the nation's history to make way for a new generation of freighters that are even bigger than the Hyundai Glory, and cannot call on New York because the channels are too shallow. The $2.25 billion dig will continue, night and day, seven days a week, through the next decade.

Far beyond the harbor, immense warehouses and distribution centers are under construction in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Railyards are being expanded and barge links are being created to carry the cargo to distant markets. And all of this activity is stoking the region's economy.

To move the goods pouring in, about 3,500 longshoremen have been hired in the last five years, and thousands of workers have been added to the more than 100,000 the port directly supports, including truck drivers, railroad workers, warehouse stockers and marine bankers. As the expansion enables the port to accept bigger ships, goods should get to New York and into the stores more quickly and cheaply, reducing prices for consumers and manufacturers in the region, according to an Army Corps study.

New York is not the only seaport lifted by the tide of Asian imports. No one expects it to regain its status as the world's busiest container port - a title it held until 1985 - or the nation's. Today it is ranked 15th in the world, 3rd in the United States.

But the port is at a pivotal moment that offers huge promise and a stiff challenge. Though the port will certainly continue growing, it is unclear whether it will make good on plans to recapture its historic role as the dominant hub for the Midwest and Canada, or slide back to what it was becoming two decades ago: a narrower gateway serving mostly the Northeast.

"The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 effectively linked our coastal seaport to a rich and burgeoning interior market; that was absolutely a defining moment," said Peter Stanford, founder of the South Street Seaport Museum. "Today we again have an opportunity to capture and handle an overwhelming majority of trade coming to the East Coast. We can't afford to muff this."

Indeed, some question whether the Port Authority, a lumbering giant of an agency that was slow to react to the port's decline in the 1970's, can keep up with the rising demands. Already, long lines of tractor-trailers form at the entrances to the ship terminals, waiting to pick up growing loads of containers. The port has physical limits - its open land and the narrowness of some of its most critical channels - and these will restrict just how much it can expand.

Ultimately, the expansion projects are a costly gamble because the port's success or failure may hinge on forces beyond its control, from the competitive efforts of other East Coast ports to a narrow sluice of water 2,300 miles away in Panama. The Hyundai Glory squeezed through the canal recently with inches to spare, and the newest ships will not fit unless Panama decides to widen the waterway, a move that could become tangled in Central American politics.

Port Authority officials say they are confident their investment will pay off. But first they must perform the equivalent of a U-turn for an ocean liner. Over its 83 years, the authority shifted most attention and resources from the waterfront to airports, bridges, tunnels and its grandest project, the World Trade Center. Now it has resolved to return to its original mission.

"We absolutely don't want to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past by ignoring how important the ports are," said Anthony R. Coscia, the Port Authority chairman. "We're now at a point where we're executing on a commitment to not make that mistake again. History is going to judge us as to our ability to execute."

Jonhui Kim, the master of the ship Hyundai Glory, on the bridge of the freighter as it approaches the Bayonne Bridge. The bow alone carried hundreds of containers of goods.

The Roots of Recovery
Costs Fall as Faster Ships Sail a Direct Route

The first men to attack the Hyundai Glory were the lashers, scampering like an army of ants across its deck, after the harbor pilots and tugs had maneuvered this behemoth ever so gently from Upper New York Bay through the narrow tidal inlet to a wharf at the Howland Hook Marine Terminal on Staten Island.

At a terminal where business was so scarce in the late 1980's that it shut down for a decade, the still night air began to echo with a clanging as the lashers feverishly unbuckled the steel anchors that tied down the containers, 2,087 of them, stacked 13 high from the bottom of the hull to the top of the deck, and then again 13 across. Matt Zuco, a crane operator, climbed into his glass-walled cab, 90 feet off the ground, and maneuvered his praying-mantis-like tower into place. Six cranes worked the Glory straight into the next afternoon.

The longshoremen are thrilled at the surge in work, which pays an average wage of $85,000 a year. The inventory of several hundred idle longshoremen who were paid not to work a decade ago - part of a job guarantee that many seized when the port slumped - has shrunk to fewer than 40. In just the last two years, more than 1,000 new union members, mostly young men who had never worked on the waterfront before, have been hired, and the terminals have extended their hours.

"You can sense it, you can see it," said Santo Lanza, a member of Mr. Zuco's gang. "There is more work, more production. There is a future here."

But the boisterous dock scene immortalized in "On the Waterfront" is long gone. The heart of the port has shifted west from the Hudson piers and Brooklyn to the Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal and Port Newark in New Jersey, where rail lines and highways link the terminals to the rest of the country. The goods come in huge containers rather than in smaller crates, and most of their handling is automated. Only about 5,500 longshoremen work on the wharves today, down from 39,000 in 1955.

And the people in charge are not the union bosses and stevedores who once forced shippers and merchants to use the Hudson and Brooklyn piers. The real power brokers today are global importers like M. Richard Markovich, the director of international logistics at Michaels, a chain of 850 arts-and-crafts stores based in Irving, Tex.

Last year, Michaels moved nearly 140,000 tons of imports to the United States, 99 percent of them from Asia. One-quarter of these goods came through New York. Five years ago, not a single shipment did.

How and why Michaels shifted so many deliveries to New York explains, in large part, the port's new vigor. During the 1970's and 80's, when America's trade with Asia started to take off, the standard route was to ship containers to the West Coast, then double-stack them on rail cars that carried them across the country. By 1993, this route, nicknamed the "mini land bridge," turned Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., into the nation's two biggest container ports.

The route became so popular that in 1990 the New York port handled fewer containers than in 1980, even as imports surged nationwide. By then, major ship lines had set up the first All Water Route lines, using the Suez Canal to serve Southeast Asia and then the Panama Canal to serve Northeast Asia, bringing cargo directly to New York and other Atlantic ports.

The big retailers say they knew all along that the mini land bridge did not make complete sense; the Northeast, after all, is the nation's biggest consumer marketplace. "You want to go where the people are," Mr. Markovich said.

But before the new water services could flourish, retailers had to build enormous East Coast distribution centers where imported products could be stored or processed before going to stores. The warehouse construction began in Southeastern ports like Savannah, which Wal-Mart has adopted as one of its most important import hubs. Now it is the New York region's turn.

In 2002, Michaels opened a warehouse with 13 football fields' worth of floor space in Hazleton, Pa., handling deliveries that arrive in New York, destined for stores from Maryland to Maine and as far west as Ohio. Lowe's, the home improvement chain, has a new distribution center in nearby Pottsville, Pa., as does Big Lots, a 1,400-store discount retailer. Vast warehouses have also opened or are under construction in central New Jersey, where Home Depot and Williams-Sonoma have set up camp.

Meanwhile, New York's reputation as a forbiddingly expensive port has been tempered by a 1990 agreement with longshoremen that allows lower salaries for newly hired workers; half of the workers are paid at this reduced rate, cutting labor costs by $46 million just last year. On the West Coast, an 11-day strike by dockworkers in 2002 had retail executives like Mr. Markovich demanding that the ship lines increase their services to the East Coast. Since then, the flow of Asian wares into West Coast ports has become a flood; at times, as many as 80 ships are waiting to unload.

So to get merchandise to the East Coast, ship lines have invested in larger, faster ships with more powerful engines. Ships like the Hyundai Glory can move at 25 knots, instead of the 16 knots for a 1960's-vintage ship. As New York's popularity has grown, more ship lines have added direct service to the port, which might have been a ship's third or fourth American port of call.

On a nonstop route, Michaels can move sewing kits or paintbrushes from China to New York in as little as 22 days, instead of the roughly 35 days the trip took five or so years ago. That is still about three days longer than the overland route, but it costs about $300 to $600 less per container, a significant savings for cost-conscious retailers.

"Three or four years ago, nobody wanted to listen to talk about All Water," said Dave Akers, managing director of the Toy Shippers Association. "The transit direct to the East Coast just would not put it in the stores in time. Now, it is fast enough in most cases to be competitive. It is a huge change."

New York consumers who buy Asian goods are still more likely to pick up a product that landed first in California; about 65 percent of the merchandise sent last year from Northeast Asia to the Atlantic Coast arrived first on the West Coast. But that was down from 86 percent in 1999, according to an analysis by the Panama Canal Authority.

And so far, the mounting Asian trade has been largely a one-way affair. After unloading 1,120 containers from the Glory, the longshoremen reloaded the ship for the return trip. Of 667 containers to be sent back, 419 were empty, being returned to Asia to carry more goods back to the United States. Of the rest, most were stuffed with two of New York's biggest exports: wastepaper and scrap metal. This is just one manifestation of the enormous trade imbalance between China and the United States. Howland Hook itself, where the Glory landed, used to be home to a sprawling Ivory Soap manufacturing plant. What remained of the factory has been leveled to create what in effect is a giant import depot.

As soon as a ship docks, the lashings are unhooked in preparation for unloading.

The Transformation
Agency Races to Meet The Growing Demand

The piers seemed a world away as 17 executives assembled around a table on the 11th floor of a Midtown office building for the 8:30 a.m. weekly Port Authority staff meeting. Yet in the head seat, wearing a tie dotted with tiny red anchors, was a retired Coast Guard rear admiral, Richard M. Larrabee, whose leadership will determine, perhaps more than anything else, whether the port is in the midst of a historic and sustainable resurgence or a fumbled opportunity.

Port officials have talked for years about investing more in the ship terminals. But the talk was based on predictions, as recently as 1999, that the number of containers passing through might start to grow by 3.5 to 4 percent a year. Now, after five years during which the average annual growth in container cargo has been 8.6 percent, those vague plans have become an urgent sprint to finish all expansion projects before the spike in traffic overwhelms the port.

Mr. Larrabee knows that several Atlantic ports, from Savannah to Halifax, Nova Scotia, are poised to grab any business that New York cannot manage.

"It is absolutely critical," said Mr. Larrabee, director of the authority's Port Commerce Department, interrupting a colleague who was describing the dredging of the channel that serves Howland Hook. If the ship terminal operator "does not get deep water by the end of the year, he is going to have some of his customers looking elsewhere," he said.

On one wall, a mammoth map, labeled The Game, marked New York as the center of a bull's-eye with rings radiating out as far as Illinois and Canada, identifying the richest consumer market in the world, where 80 million people live within a 24-hour truck trip. Next to that, a timetable with more than 1,000 tiny boxes detailed tasks and deadlines to be met.

The Port Authority has not been the most nimble agency. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani complained that it mismanaged the city's airports. Squabbling between New York and New Jersey over how to split the port's resources has stalled construction projects, and even held up the current expansion for more than a year. Security measures after the Sept. 11 terror attack added another level of planning and expense.

But the work has begun. At Port Elizabeth, home to the authority's two busiest terminals, demand for space was so low in the 1970's and 80's that the authority leased valuable property for low-rent storage. Nearly 50 acres of those warehouses have been knocked down to make room for arriving ship containers, which are now stacked across the lots like loaves of bread at some out-of-control bakery.

At Maher Terminal, new gates - a toll-booth-like complex where cameras automatically record identification numbers on trucks and containers - will allow 10,000 trucks to move in or out each day, nearly double the current capacity. Nearby, dozens of construction workers spent 11-hour days last summer building an 18-track express railyard to replace the existing 4 tracks, permitting as many as 750,000 containers a year to move through by rail by 2008, compared with 230,000 last year.

Across a narrow inlet, at the Port Newark Container Terminal, the wharf has been rebuilt to handle heavier cranes and cargo. At Howland Hook, the summer brought something that would have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago: new wharves. Enough new dock space is being built to allow three large container ships to unload at the same time, and there are plans for another berthing area to handle four.

Near the spot where the Hyundai Glory was unloaded, Peter Clerkin, a mechanical engineer from Ireland, is supervising a team installing four huge new cranes, costing $6.6 million apiece. Nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the cranes can load and unload the new generation of ships that cannot fit through the Panama Canal. Harborwide, 19 of these cranes have been constructed or ordered in the last two years.

"We are changing the skyline of this area, for miles around," Mr. Clerkin said. "These are the port's new landmarks."

The most complicated project is re-establishing a freight-rail link between Staten Island and the rest of the country, at a cost of about $150 million. New York City bought and repaired the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge and a 15-mile spur of track a decade ago, but until now, the revival of this rail service, which should start at the end of 2005, has been no more than a dream.

But the port can expand only by moving many more containers over the same terminal space. Although the Port Authority is considering opening a new container port in Bayonne, N.J., there is little other waterfront land available with easy access to railroads and highways.

The quest for greater productivity makes the modernization complex and risky. The authority has set extremely high goals, predicting, for example, that by 2020 each acre will handle an average of 3,000 containers a year, twice as many as today. Trucks carry about 85 percent of all freight in and out of the port, so to keep from overloading the highways, the authority hopes to nearly double the use of rail by 2020.

For Mr. Larrabee, the most delicate part of his Port Authority job is coordinating the teams of contractors, agencies and corporations, stretching from New Jersey to Korea, so they finish at the same time. Dredge a deeper harbor without rail access, build a longer wharf without new cranes, construct a new rail terminal without a bridge - miss any piece - and the plan could falter.

"There's a lot of variables," he said. "But at some point, you have to say to yourself, 'I'm willing to take the risk.' "

The Panama Canal
A Crucial Waterway Is Pushed to Its Limit

The sun had not yet risen above the lush hills that slope gently to the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to the Panama Canal. But the Hanjin Los Angeles, another in the stream of container ships traveling nonstop from Asia to New York, was already waiting at the entrance, the 11th in line one morning for the 50-mile journey between the seas.

New York was four sailing days away. Yet what was happening here, as the Panamanian pilot, Luis Prescod, climbed a ladder to board the Los Angeles, had clear implications for the future of New York's port.

With the rise of China and Northeast Asia as leading manufacturing centers, the canal has suddenly become as important as the George Washington Bridge for freight headed to New York. But while the Port Authority owns the bridge, Mr. Larrabee and his team have no say over affairs in Panama, manager of the canal since 1999.

For the moment, the canal link is working for New York, though just barely.

The Hanjin Los Angeles, like the Hyundai Glory, is a Panamax-class vessel, which is just what it sounds like: a ship built to use the Panama Canal to its maximum. At 951 feet long and 105 feet wide, the Los Angeles, once the pilot steered it into the canal's Miraflores lock, had just two feet to spare on each side and 25 feet at each end.

The Hanjin's bow bounced briefly against a bumper on the wall of the lock, prompting a "stop engines" order from Mr. Prescod. But because he has been performing this kind of miracle for 15 years, the trip through the canal otherwise proceeded uneventfully.

One day last year, 24 of these Panamax ships inched through, carrying nearly one million tons of cargo. The Panama Canal Authority heralded those record numbers as a sign of the canal's growing popularity. But they were also a warning that this water superhighway is closing in on its limits.

Hanjin, the South Korean shipping company that owns the Hanjin Los Angeles, has 22 post-Panamax ships, and more on order. These ships are also just what they sound like: too big to squeeze through the locks. Over the next four years, the 227 post-Panamax container ships due to be built and delivered represent more than half of the total number of container ships on order, according to Drewry Shipping Consultants of London. One Port Authority consultant, Sir William Halcrow & Partners, estimated two years ago that by 2020, two-thirds of the nation's container imports would be aboard ships too big to navigate the canal.

Their size is not the only concern. In the fiscal year that just ended, 267 million tons of goods passed through the canal, up 10 percent in one year, and closing in on the canal's capacity of 284 million tons. Traffic is so heavy that if a ship misses its crossing time, it must sometimes wait a day or longer before it can slip into the queue, delaying its arrival on the East Coast.

"The growth in traffic has exceeded all expectations," said Rodolfo R. Sabonge, the director of corporate planning and marketing for the Panama Canal Authority.

There is a plan to build a new canal lane, Panama's third, and a larger set of locks, a project that would cost billions and take at least a decade. The canal authority will most likely ask Panama this year to schedule a national referendum on the plan.

Even if the canal is not widened, Port Authority officials say, there will be enough trade to justify an expanded New York port. It is also possible to reach New York from China through the Suez Canal, which can accommodate even the biggest ships, although the trip takes three or four days longer.

For now, what is beyond debate is that the ships that cross the world have changed their course. That was evident on the bridge of the Hyundai Glory as it slowly pulled into New York, its crew in their bright orange uniforms standing alongside harbor pilots who sipped green tea. New York, once again in a big way, is at the top of the schedule.

"Stop engines," Mike Schnepp, the pilot, called as the Glory drifted the final few feet into Howland Hook. K. J. Yoo, his hand on the thruster, called back, "Stop engines, sir."


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

November 23rd, 2004, 01:43 AM
November 23, 2004

Beneath the Harbor, It's Dig or Else


A container ship turning in the Kill Van Kull near the dredging, in the foreground.

It is nearly 3 a.m., and traffic on the Bayonne Bridge is so light that this link between New Jersey and Staten Island looks almost like some rural river crossing. Yet from down beneath the graceful steel-arch span, in a spot illuminated by the moonlight, comes an angry roar, followed by a tremendous rumble. The Beast of the Kill Van Kull is out feeding again tonight.

This giant rock-eating machine, its long arm capped with steel teeth strong enough to shred a dump truck, is part of a fleet of equipment that has been working around the clock, seven days a week, for four years on one of the largest and most expensive harbor-dredging jobs in the nation's history.

This public works project is as invisible as it is epic. Although the region's residents, commuters and airport users are footing the nearly $2.25 billion bill with help from the federal government, the dredging has proceeded far out of earshot and eyesight of millions of New Yorkers living just a few miles away.

New York City's version of the Big Dig is motivated by a threat like those made by professional sports teams seeking a plush new stadium. Either dig a deeper harbor, the world's biggest ship lines and terminal operators have bluntly told the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, or the $100 billion a year in goods that move through New York Harbor will start shifting to other, deeper ports in North America. New York's channels, they warn, are too shallow for the ever-bigger freighters that are plying the seas.

A major milestone will be reached, and celebrated, within the next month when the dredging clears a depth of at least 45 feet in the Kill Van Kull, the narrow, four-mile-long tidal channel that connects Upper New York Bay to Elizabeth and Newark, the two busiest spots in the harbor. But the work had barely begun when the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, which are sharing the cost, realized that 45 feet would not be not deep enough for the newest generation of ships. So the dredging will continue, to a minimum of 50 feet, for much of the next decade.

"We have to go back and start over again," said Steve Frey, one of the operators on the Dredge Tauracavor, the floating platform where the excavator nicknamed the Beast is mounted.

What makes this task so hard - and requires supremely powerful devices like the Beast, instead of conventional clamshell-style dredging rigs - is that crews are not simply scooping up soft clay and silt. The depths required in the Kill Van Kull are so far beyond the harbor's natural bottom that contractors must blast and carve a new underwater canyon through as much as 10 feet of diabase, the same sort of bedrock that forms the Palisades cliffs that tower over the Hudson River.

Further complicating the job, much of the muck being pulled from the harbor's bottom is contaminated with industrial poisons that have been carried in for centuries by the Hudson and Passaic Rivers. Simply finding a place to dump this material has been a huge effort.

And all the blasting, excavating and hauling must be done without interrupting the vital flow of ships through the port. "It is like building a highway with the cars still coming in," said Harold J. Hawkins, who is helping manage the project for the Army Corps.

From a distance, the dredge and its excavator resemble a long-necked dinosaur feeding in a primordial swamp. And the work out in the harbor's narrow straits proceeds like something from the early days of the Industrial Revolution: loud, violent and unrelenting for the men who carry it out.

The rock-eating machine called the Beast is being used for one of the largest harbor-dredging jobs in the nation's history.

Controlling the Beast

It is hard to imagine a lonelier spot in New York than the cab of the Beast during the 12-hour overnight shift, in the closet-like space where Mr. Frey and the other dredge operators started working in August 2000, when Bean Excavation of New Orleans arrived to begin digging in the Kill Van Kull.

With a windshield three panes thick and a prisonlike steel cage to protect from ricocheting rock, this closet-size, sound-insulated compartment can be reached only by climbing up three grease-slicked ladders from the deck of the barge.

The interior is a cross between a tractor-trailer cab and the cockpit of a "Star Wars" X-wing fighter. It smells of stale cigarette smoke, and a battered FM radio blasts pop music. But just to the left of Mr. Frey's seat are two computer monitors that merge data from satellites tracking the barge's location with intricate sonar readings of the shape of the channel floor. They produce three-dimensional images like those in a video game, telling Mr. Frey exactly where his excavating bucket sits relative to the rock, even after the Beast's arm has reached out and disappeared into the muddy water.

Mr. Frey's job now is to use this extraordinary computer imagery, and two joysticks fast in his grip, to slow the bucket as it approaches the rock, and to make sure that as he applies its 337,100 pounds of digging pressure to the bottom, it hits at just the right angle so that it rips the rock, instead of snapping off the bucket's metal teeth.

Even without the video monitors, there would be no way to miss the moment he makes contact with bedrock. The entire barge shakes wildly. So jarring and constant are the vibrations that screws all over the cabin wiggle loose, and the air-conditioner and other appliances have to be replaced every few weeks. But as the hours pass, the Beast's assaults acquire a certain rhythm, and even grace.

"You can't just go down there and snatch and grab," said Mr. Frey, 48, a big, burly man from Jacksboro, Tenn., whose uniform is ripped white overalls, a bandanna that keeps the sweat off his forehead and a necklace holding a shark's tooth he once dug up. "You have to have a certain finesse."

The digging has become so ingrained in Mr. Frey's bones that about the only time he cannot sleep in the living quarters downstairs - where aluminum foil and cardboard cover the windows to keep daylight out - is when the Beast breaks down and the vibrations stop.

"It sounds crazy, but it kind of rocks you to sleep," said Danny Aguado, 42, of Tampa, Fla., another operator on the Dredge Tauracavor.

Ten men live on this barge for two weeks at a stretch, taking turns sleeping and operating the Beast. They are flown home for a week, then head back to the barge. The excavator can clear anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet a day, depending on the material, filling up as many as three scows, which then carry away the debris. But it is merely one of 81 pieces of dredging equipment that have been out on the harbor at various times over the last year.

Just a few hundred yards away, a team of men work on a drilling and blasting barge, preparing an area before the excavator can move in and dig. Drilling 80 holes at a time, about 10 feet apart, these crews stuff each hole with a liquid explosive that has the consistency of pancake batter. Once a field of these charges is in place, and the drill boat and crew back away, the underwater fireworks begin.

It sounds like one big explosion, muffled somewhat by the water. But in fact, an intricate series of individual blasts have taken place, creating a shock wave that shoves the rock, avalanche-style, down an underwater slope, or simply heaves the rock upward, so Mr. Frey and the others have an easier time grabbing it.

Finding the best combination of blasting and digging, in some cases, took months of trial and error. In another part of the Kill Van Kull, Weeks Dredging and Contracting crews failed to scoop up the rock with a clamshell dredge, and even multiple jabs with a 20-ton spike could not break it up. By the time explosives were brought in, work had fallen more than six months behind schedule.

In total, 1,324 blasts, sometimes three a day, have been set off over the last three years in the short stretch between the Bayonne Bridge and Port Elizabeth, rattling homes on Staten Island and in Bayonne, N.J. The clanging and scraping of the dredges fill the silence between them.

"You can put your air-conditioner on and close all the windows - it makes no difference," said J. P. O'Hara, a retired auto worker who lives in Bayonne. "It is absolutely unbelievable, like the guns of Navarone."

Steve Frey, on a 12-hour shift, using computer imagery to help direct the Beast.

Bigger Ships, Deeper Ports

The guns first sounded back in the days of World War I. The port has been playing catch-up ever since, periodically dredging to make way for bigger ships.

"We ask for this improvement, not locally, but nationally," went one local appeal for a federally financed dredging of the Kill Van Kull in 1917, prefiguring the pleas that are heard today. "The government cannot spend its money to better advantage than by this improvement."

Two years earlier, state and local governments in New Jersey used a two-foot-wide pipe to suck centuries' worth of muck out of swampy Newark Bay, deepening it and creating, with the help of a dike, a new waterfront that is known today as Port Newark.

The port's advantages were obvious. Because the railroads had run their tracks to New Jersey, it was there - not at the piers in Manhattan or Brooklyn - that direct rail connections to the rest of the nation could be made. Highways would soon follow. And as pallets began to be replaced in the 1950's by larger metal containers that had to be stacked before they could be loaded onto a truck or rail car, the expansive new waterfront became the heart of New York's port, wiping out ship traffic along the West Side of Manhattan and most of the trade in Brooklyn.

But Newark Bay, and the Kill Van Kull, the channel used to get there from the main harbor, also had serious drawbacks.

The daily flow of the Hudson and East Rivers had created naturally deep harbors in Brooklyn and along the West Side of Manhattan, or at least riverbeds of silt that could easily be dredged, and by the 1930's these waterways had channels 40 to 45 feet deep.

By comparison, Newark Bay was shallow, and the Kill Van Kull, with its bedrock floor, was only 20 to 30 feet at its deepest. Navigating that channel, ships had to make a nearly 90-degree turn just west of the Bayonne Bridge, a spot nicknamed Death Alley after dozens of accidents, including a fiery collision of two tankers in 1966 that killed 33. That tight squeeze has prompted perennial pleas to dig deeper.

For the most part, the Port Authority, with help from the Army Corps, was able to stay ahead of the demands of larger ships, carving the Kill Van Kull to 35 feet in the 1970's and then 40 feet in the late 80's. The tight turn at Death Alley was also widened, although it remains a daunting obstacle that may someday require further widening.

But with the July 1998 visit of the Regina Maersk - a container ship that draws 47 feet of water when fully loaded - New York officially lost the ship-versus-harbor contest. The only way the Regina Maersk could enter Newark Bay was to carry one-fifth of its full load.

Maersk, one of the world's largest shipping companies, had carefully staged the Regina's arrival, and threatened soon afterward to move its East Coast hub out of New York, perhaps to Baltimore or to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"The ship owners' message was simple: If we did not meet the demands, the cargo would go elsewhere, even if it was still headed to New York consumers," said Lillian C. Borrone, then the port commerce director at the Port Authority. "No matter how much we had already spent, it wasn't going to be enough. We were no longer a viable modern port. We needed to evolve more."

The digging has not paused since.

Ten miles off the coast of New Jersey, where New York vanishes into the ocean haze, deep-blue swells tossed the tugboat around as if it were a dinghy. Eight hundred feet behind the tug, pulled by a steel cable two inches thick, was what looked like a giant open coffin: one of the big-mouthed scows that Mr. Frey and the other crew members of the Tauracavor had just finished stuffing to its brim with jagged rocks.

As the boat approached a precise coordinate on the map, this load of rock that once posed a threat to port commerce was about to be transformed into a source of new life.

Dumping the Dredged Debris

Steve Sorenson, master of the tugboat, the American Champion, watched a computer screen as an image representing the 296-foot scow crept up on a square representing the impossibly small spot where he was supposed to dump the rock, creating a tiny piece of a manmade playground for aquatic life called the Shark River Reef.

"Bombs away," he said, pushing a button to open the bottom of the barge, sending the rock tumbling to the ocean floor. The scow popped up out of the water, bobbing lightly atop the waves.

It is a 10-hour round trip to this disposal site, the last, laborious stage of a laborious dredging project. To another spot offshore, the American Champion tows loads of clean mud and silt, dumping them atop a former ocean landfill to form a protective cap over the contaminated site.

The Champion has also delivered dredged soil that tests have found is contaminated - with mercury, lead, cadmium, PCB's, dioxins or other substances - to sites on land, including two landfills in New Jersey. The silt is then mixed with fly ash and cement, which bond with the contaminants and help prevent them from leaching into groundwater, and is dumped to cap the landfills. Atop these dumps have risen the Jersey Gardens shopping center in Elizabeth and a new golf course in Bayonne.

"There was a tremendous amount of public pressure applied to get to this point," said Cynthia Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a nonprofit based in Sandy Hook, N.J. "By digging, they are disturbing a marine habitat. But the combination of solutions that were developed to manage the dredge material is one we are very proud of."

By next month, the dredging project will make history. The waters in the Kill Van Kull, after decades of digging, are finally about as deep as the main harbor channels. Since 1999, 11 million cubic yards of rock, clay and silt have been removed, one 5,000-cubic-yard scow at a time.

That is an extraordinary accomplishment. But it also explains why the next phase of the job will be so hard. To bring the harbor's depth down to 50 feet, further dredging will have to be done not only in the Kill Van Kull, but also in the Bay Ridge Channel, which leads to Brooklyn, and in the Ambrose Channel, the main ship highway into the harbor from the sea.

In total, 42 million more cubic yards must be dredged from the harbor. By the time they finish, the Army Corps and its contractors will have removed enough silt, clay and rock to fill Giants Stadium 17 times.

At that point, they say, their effort to keep up with the shipbuilders may well have ended. But they concede that their predictions are anything but watertight. The Bayonne Bridge, for example, may be too low; ships now barely fit underneath it. A study is being conducted to find whether the arch can be raised instead of building a new bridge.

"Looking into the future, the next 30 to 40 years, and the fleet of ships we expect, we think the 50-foot channel should be adequate," said William F. Slezak, the Army Corps engineer who supervises the dredging projects. "But can I guarantee that? No."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company