Fixing the low air draft of the Bayonne Bridge so that new, large ships can serve the Port of New York and New Jersey’s four terminals will be neither quick nor cheap. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated in a study this month it will cost $1.5 billion to $3.3 billion to build any of the four alternatives it studied and take 10 to 15 years to complete.
But if the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the legislatures in Albany and Trenton don’t find a way to solve the problem, the study says it will curtail the port’s growth for years, and maybe decades, by preventing ships larger than 7,000 TEUs from accessing most of the major container terminals in New Jersey and on Staten Island.
Ships exceeding 8,000 TEUs already are common in major global trade routes, and barring a solution would be limited to calling two New York-New Jersey terminals — Global Terminal in Jersey City, and Red Hook in Brooklyn. The port authority also is building a new facility, the so-called Terminal X, on the space occupied by the Northeast Auto Terminal next to Global, but that is years away from completion.
That leaves four major terminals impacted by the bridge’s air draft problems: Port Newark Container Terminal, New York Container Terminal on Staten Island, and Maher and APM terminals in Elizabeth, N.J. The limitations could force shippers and carriers to divert services to Virginia, Savannah and other major East Coast load centers that are preparing now for a surge in 12,000-TEU-plus ships that will be able to transit the Panama Canal when its lock-expansion project is completed in 2014.
The $10 million study, commissioned by the port authority, drew three major conclusions:
-- At its current height, the Bayonne Bridge is an obstruction to large container vessels greater than 7,000 TEUs that might otherwise call the Port of New York and New Jersey within the 50-year planning horizon.
-- The economic benefits of removing the bridge are above and beyond the benefits of ongoing dredging of channels leading to the terminals to 50 feet.
-- Preliminary estimates indicate all of the proposed engineering alternatives to deal with the air draft problem would result in “considerably” favorable benefit-to-cost ratios.
Ironically, the dredging of the Kill van Kull channel to 50 feet is likely to exacerbate the problem with the bridge’s low air draft, which limits the draft of vessels passing under the bridge at mean high water to 151 feet. “With the forthcoming 50-foot channel, the keel to mast height of ships traversing the Kill van Kull will be limited to 204 feet; however, the loading, design, and operation of vessels may further restrict access to Newark Bay because a ship transiting with a 204-foot height must be perfectly loaded at a 48-foot draft, leaving two feet for underkeel clearance,” the study said.
The study explored four alternatives to the existing bridge, as well as estimated their costs, the time it would take to complete them and the time it would take for the investments to pay for themselves.
The first option is to jack up the existing bridge to a clearance of 215 feet and build new approach roads. The study estimated that project would cost $3.27 billion to complete it by 2019 and would take until 2033 to break even.
The second option, to build a new bridge with a 215-foot clearance, would cost $2.82 billion, take until 2022 to complete and break even in 2039.
The third option, boring a tunnel in the bedrock of the Kill van Kull, would cost $2.59 billion, take until 2024 to complete and break even by 2042.
The fourth option, building a tunnel immersed on the bottom of the Kill van Kull, would cost $1.52 billion, take until 2024 to complete and pay for itself by 2051.
The port handled 5.3 million TEUs, including empties, in 2008, flat from a year earlier. While volume has climbed 18 percent over the past five years, New York-New Jersey’s rank among global container ports has fallen from 15th in 2004 to 20th in 2008, according to The Journal of Commerce’s annual Top 50 World Container Ports (http://joc.pressmart.com/index.aspx?issue=issue10). But it remains the third-largest U.S. container port after Los Angeles and Long Beach, and is the largest East Coast port by far, handling twice the annual volume of No. 2, the Georgia Ports Authority.
Still, maritime interests in the harbor have become increasingly vociferous about the need to get started on a new bridge or tunnel. “We are attempting to gain some support both in Trenton and New York, because we feel it’s a very big threat on the port activity here in New York harbor,” said Don Hamm, president of Port Newark Container Terminal. “If we don’t invest now and make a tunnel or a higher bridge, all those big ships out there won’t be able to get into New York. They’re going to go someplace else and re-establish trade lanes around New York, and we’ll be sitting here saying, ‘Oh, damn, we’ve got to get after that.’ ”
The port authority, which once dismissed the need to replace the bridge, now embraces the concept that the 151- to 154-foot height from the water, depending on tide, is too low for some ships that call the port currently and especially the larger container ships that will begin arriving in 2014.
Port authority officials already have implemented the Corps’ recommendation to begin further planning and environmental analyses to choose a solution. Last month, the agency authorized a $10 million planning and engineering analysis that will include a regional cost benefit analysis, environmental screening, the assessment of land-use impacts, conceptual engineering studies, the potential additional land-side investments necessary to accommodate the new vessels and volumes of cargo, and external outreach, including consultation with concerned maritime interests.
The port authority said its planning efforts to identify a preferred alternative would take approximately 1 1/2 years, including preparing a conceptual engineering study and a preliminary environmental analysis of the alternatives.
Peter T. Leach can be contacted at email@example.com.