Brooklyn may have a bridge, but unlike four major terminals on the west side of New York harbor, ships don’t have to pass under it to get there. With a $1 billion project to raise the Bayonne Bridge still in the design phase and at least five years from completion, Brooklyn is re-emerging as a possible alternative at the Port of New York and New Jersey for the massive ships that will transit the Panama Canal’s new, expanded locks.
In the long term, however, it’s unlikely the Brooklyn alternative will be the existing Red Hook Container Terminal, whose future may be in beer, not maritime operations. Instead, an 88-acre deep-water breakbulk terminal in South Brooklyn, which has been used as a police tow pound for three decades, may lure the big ships to the east side of the harbor.
The New York Economic Development Corp. launched the modernization project two years ago, and the new terminal, the closest to the ocean of any New York-New Jersey facility, will open next year. Now, Red Hook’s cloudy future and a variety of other factors including increasing congestion, rising diesel prices for trucks and increasing tolls on the bridges and tunnels leading from the New Jersey container terminals to New York’s massive population base are providing an undercurrent of support for increased container handling on the eastern side of New York harbor.
Outgoing port authority Executive Director Christopher Ward this month said cargo activities at the Red Hook terminal should be moved to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, which would have access to an on-dock rail line that would connect the terminal with the national rail network, and proximity to the Brooklyn entrance of the proposed Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel to New Jersey.
“We must, we must finally realize small-scale rail freight distribution within this city,” Ward said. “People think the port loves trucks, because it brings us revenue. Believe me, we have enough revenue, and the nonstop delivery trucks are killing our city.”
Red Hook’s future beyond next year was dealt a serious blow when terminal operator American Stevedoring International, which has lost money at Red Hook for years, negotiated a buyout of its 10-year lease with the port authority, as of Sept. 30. The port authority acquired ASI’s cranes and other terminal equipment and turned it over as a turnkey operation to one of the terminal’s customers, Phoenix Beverage, which formed Red Hook Container Co. to take over stevedoring operations.
The new company is now loading and unloading ships at the 66-acre terminal, whose potential as a maritime facility is severely limited by a lack of room to expand, under a one-year lease. When the lease ends, the port authority and the NYEDC may revive plans to convert the terminal to non-maritime activities, including developing a brewery and an esplanade.
“The port authority is developing future plans for the Red Hook Container Terminal that will focus on east of Hudson cargo shipments and will be financially self sustainable,” a port authority spokesman said in response to e-mailed questions.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a strong supporter of keeping maritime activities on the Brooklyn waterfront, seconded Ward’s statement. “Mr. Ward’s sentiment — that given its geographical advantages, the future of container shipping is in Sunset Park — is correct, as is our shared position that container port activity at the Red Hook terminal must continue and grow, uninterrupted, until a major, deep-water Sunset Park container port is operational. The city, state and port authority must prioritize the development of the Sunset Park port in order to capture the major economic development opportunities for New York and ensure that we continue to make more efficient the movement of goods in this region.”
Large post-Panamax ships capable of carrying more than 10,000 20-foot equivalent container units would be able to dock at a Sunset Park container terminal without having to cope with the low air draft of the Bayonne Bridge on the other side of the harbor. The new location also would offer berth-side water depth of 55 feet, more than enough to handle the post-Panamax ships that will transit the new locks at the Panama Canal after 2014 — ships that have ports up and down the East and Gulf coasts racing to get the infrastructure in place to accommodate.
The port authority has approved a $1 billion project to raise the Bayonne Bridge, but that won’t be done until 2016 at the earliest. Ships calling at four of the five terminals on the west side of New York harbor — New York Container Terminal on Staten Island, Port Newark Container Terminal and the Maher and APM terminals in Port Elizabeth — must pass under the Bayonne Bridge. The fifth, Global Terminal, is located northeast of the bridge, on the border of Bayonne and Jersey City.
But although Sunset Park is getting a new lease on life as a breakbulk and ro-ro terminal, it will need ship-to-shore cranes and reinforced piers to handle containers, something it hasn’t done since the 1980s, when most of that business migrated to Red Hook and across the harbor to New Jersey. And container operations are likely at least five years off because of lease agreements with the breakbulk and ro-ro operators.
For now, the NYEDC is investing $115 million in terminal infrastructure improvements, site preparation and dredging, as well as an additional $13 million to extend an unused rail line that will connect the terminal to the Southern Gateway at Brooklyn’s 65th Street railyard. From there, cargo will move via rail barge to the Greenville railyards in Bayonne, N.J., that connect to CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern’s eastern rail networks.
The industrial park at the reopened South Brooklyn Marine Terminal will include an auto-processing facility on 79 acres operated by Axis Group. Automobile imports and exports through the terminal should start next year. The site also includes a recycling facility on 11 acres that will be operated by Sims Recycling starting in 2013, said Daniel Zarrilli, the NYEDC’s senior vice president of asset management.
Nadler was instrumental in getting ASI’s lease at Red Hook renewed for 10 years in 2008 by the port authority, which had hoped to move its container operations over to the four terminals in New Jersey and Staten Island. After the uncertainty over its lease renewal was cleared, ASI’s container throughput at the terminal increased rapidly. But terminal-handling fees didn’t grow enough to pay for maintaining the aging infrastructure, and ASI couldn’t pay the port authority the rent it owed.
“I am very grateful to American Stevedoring for years of service and for keeping Brooklyn’s only container port active for these many years, especially in the face of a great deal of public policy uncertainty,” Nadler said. “I am obviously glad that the parties involved were able to come to a negotiated settlement and could ensure that there is no stoppage in container port operations in Red Hook.”