Bayonne Bottleneck

Bayonne Bottleneck

Container ship lines were happy to see the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey decide how it wants to raise clearance for ships under the Bayonne Bridge. They’d be even happier if a construction schedule were in place.

The port authority hasn’t said how long it will take to raise the bridge’s roadway to accommodate bigger ships, but the job won’t be quick or cheap. A hint of things to come may be in New Orleans, where the widening of another 1930s span, the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River, is a $1.2 billion, seven-year project.

Much has been made of the fact that the Bayonne Bridge won’t be raised in time for the scheduled 2014 opening of larger locks at the Panama Canal. Even before the canal expansion, however, the bridge’s low bridge clearance is already an impediment to ship traffic.

Many vessels that call the port can’t get under the bridge unless they arrive at low tide. Carriers say they often must delay arrivals or departures of vessels as small as 4,500 TEUs in order to work around tides. That costs money and creates delays.

As far back as nine years ago, a vessel had to go to Freeport, Bahamas, to have four feet chopped off the funnel so it could get under the Bayonne Bridge. Last year, the NYK Nebula was diverted to Norfolk to take on additional containers after attempts to make the ship heavier failed, rendering it too high in the water to pass under the Bayonne Bridge.

In less publicized incidents, pilots routinely report allisions between ship antennas and the underside of the bridge. Some carriers have made costly retrofits to allow their antennas to be folded down so they can pass under the bridge.

Joseph Curto, president of the New York Shipping Association, says the NYSA appreciates the port authority’s effort to solve the bridge problem, but he hopes the work can be started and completed as soon as possible.

“We feel it is imperative that the region’s policy makers understand that the Bayonne Bridge will not ‘become a problem’ in 2015, it is a problem now,” Curto said. “Consequently, we urge the port authority to place the project on a fast track for design, commencement of construction and aim for the earliest possible completion date.”