Aground in Trenton

Aground in Trenton

As they prepare for life under a New Jersey law whose preamble declares its intention to address safety and security problems related to vessel pilotage in New York harbor, many people familiar with the issue are still asking: What problems?

"This is flawed, unnecessary legislation, a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," said Edward J. Kelly, executive director of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York and New Jersey. "It will raise costs and do nothing to improve safety or security."

The New Jersey legislation, expected to be signed into law by Gov. James McGreevey, will change the regulatory system governing the port's two categories of pilots - the state-licensed Sandy Hook pilots who bring ships from the sea into the harbor entrance, and the federally licensed docking pilots who use tugs to guide ships between the harbor's mouth and terminal docks.

The new law would require state licensing of the docking pilots as well as the Sandy Hook pilots, effectively erasing the distinction between the two groups. It also would establish fees that would enable the state Board of Commissioners of Pilotage commission to transform itself from a part-time body to a full-time agency with offices, staff, salaries and pensions.

Kelly called the legislation a "power grab," but said the industry is less concerned with the new law's political-patronage aspects than with its creation of a state-sanctioned pilot monopoly. The port's docking pilots are contractors or employees of competing tug operators, and are certified by the Coast Guard, usually after as much as 12 to 15 years of training. If the supply of docking pilots is restricted by a political agency such as the New Jersey commission, costs inevitably will rise, Kelly said.

"Several states have taken control of local pilotage, and in almost all cases, costs have risen while efficiency has suffered," Kelly said. A prime example is in Baltimore, where port users have complained of higher costs and worse service since pilots were brought under Maryland state regulation four years ago. Similar complaints have arisen in Louisiana, where an industry-backed effort this month produced changes in the state regulatory system.

The New Jersey legislation was opposed by several industry groups, including the New York Shipping Association, major carriers, the American Waterways Operators, and New Jersey business organizations. It was supported by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is under control of the two states' governments.

Tim Dacey, chairman of the pilotage board and a longtime political ally of McGreevey, said before legislative action on the pilotage bill that the goal was to standardize training and promote safety, without jeopardizing pilots' jobs. Some industry officials, however, say they worry that the new law will discourage prospective docking pilots from entering the industry if their eventual promotion to a pilot's job hinges on the actions of a political board. He also said making the bar pilots' and docking pilots' jobs interchangeable does not recognize the differences in the skills their jobs require.

Capt. Craig E. Bone, Coast Guard port captain for New York and New Jersey, said in a five-page letter to legislators that he saw nothing in the New Jersey legislation that would improve navigational safety or port security, and that some provisions could have the opposite effect. Bone said the safety record of port pilots already "is quite satisfactory" and that the current system of separate docking and bar pilots ensures that a pilot with special skills is in control in each segment of a ship's transit between dock and open sea. He said the Coast Guard's resources for security clearances of port pilots far exceed anything the state can offer, and that a new set of pilot credentials could produce confusion.

Louis Bettinelli, president of Interport Pilots, said he's "extremely worried" that the commission could eventually restrict the supply of pilots. He said states that regulate pilotage "provide a facade of regulation, but only a facade. It's really a system that promotes and protects each little monopoly around the country."