Mega-alliances of the major shipping lines will be the predominant trend affecting U.S. ports in 2014 and for the remainder of this decade. It seems certain that three major operational alliances will account for more than 90 percent of the global container ship capacity. The P3, if approved, will deploy 250 ships with 260,000 TEUs of standing capacity in the east-west trades, an average vessel size of more than 10,000 TEUs.
The 8,000- to 9,000-TEU container ship will become the workhorse size of the trade between the U.S. East Coast and Asia, with the upside being 13,000- to 14,000-TEU ships by the time the Bayonne Bridge is raised in 2016.
South Atlantic ports offer rich possibilities for these big ship deployments as they offer an unmatched combination of import and export container flows handled with high productivity at low cost. Exports will continue to grow in both basic commodities and a select group of manufacturing industries. An 8,500-TEU container ship uses 48 feet of draft when fully loaded with export cargo, requiring 50-foot or deeper harbors for unrestricted access to terminals. Schedule reliability will be the name of the game for mega-alliances in order to gain acceptance from customers.
Some very positive trends in East Coast ports support this development. Congress is moving at this writing to streamline the way that harbor deepening projects are authorized for completion. Still remaining is to find a predictable way to achieve federal appropriations. The development of short-haul intermodal rail also provides promise in diversifying how containerized cargo moves to and from ports. Indeed, there are rich opportunities for ports.
Jim Newsome is President and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority