The spring completion of a key highway ramp into the Port of New York and New Jersey and a new $1.5 billion interstate highway bridge nearby have injected truck traffic fluidity into the port area. Yet the projects also have underscored the need for future infrastructure improvements as volume increases and mega-ships promise more intense discharges.
The developments come as the East Coast’s largest port gears up to handle an expected increase to the 15,000 truck trips currently made in and out of the port’s six marine terminals, with a surge in mega-ships projected to result from the completion of a marine-side infrastructure project — the $1.6 billion elevation of the Bayonne Bridge.
The road projects, and others that indirectly support the movement of freight by truck, help prop up an aging road system that frequently slows under congestion and long traffic lines, straining — similar to other urban ports around the nation — to keep trucks moving in a densely populated part of northern New Jersey just 10 miles from the heart of New York City.
The completed infrastructure and the pipeline of future projects are welcomed by truckers. Some question whether they are enough, while others suggest that the only way for the region to really handle the relentless truck flow is to encourage more off-peak driving.
The flow of ongoing projects includes the renovation of a key bridge — the Pulaski Skyway — that reduces congestion by siphoning cars off highways close to the port, and a new bridge that takes trucks away from the port area and also carries traffic heading to a CSX Transportation intermodal terminal. A third project will streamline traffic inside the port.
For shippers, the highway infrastructure is a key element to ensuring that cargo keeps flowing, with consistency, in and out of a port in which around 85 percent of all cargo is carried by truck. Truck congestion is one reason why port officials are trying to boost rail-bound cargo from about 15 percent of all port cargo to 20 percent.
NY-NJ — container volume uptrend
Cargo volumes through the port rose by 6.4 percent — to 2.87 million loaded TEU — in the first seven months of 2018, over the same period in 2017, according to PIERS, a sister product of JOC.com. That’s partly driven by vessel traffic stemming from the elevation of the Bayonne Bridge, from 151 to 215 feet, which enabled ships of 9,500 TEU for the first time to reach three of the port’s four main terminals — PNCT, Maher Terminals, and APM Terminals. Before the elevation, vessels of that size could only reach GCT Bayonne.
Port stakeholders anticipated that in the wake of the bridge opening, in June 2017, the frequent arrival of big ships requiring intense loading and unloading of large volumes of cargo in a short time would stress the port’s equipment and trucking resources and overburden area roads.
About 19 vessels of 10,000 TEU or more call at the port a month now, nearly three times as many as when the elevated bridge first opened.
So far, however, the feared disruption has not happened — in large part because although the port has seen an increase in mega-ship arrivals, the rise in cargo flow has not been that large. Many of the cargo loads and unloads have been about the same as those that have arrived on smaller ships in the past.
While truckers say the two latest projects have improved fluidity in the port area, some question whether freight transportation needs are high enough in the priority lists of state and transportation planners.
“I don’t think enough focus is made on trucks,” said Rob Movshin, regional manager at Northeast Container Port Group. “And I don’t think enough focus is made on infrastructure with the Port of New York and New Jersey in mind, with the exception of the raising of the Bayonne Bridge.”
Those projects that are completed have a big impact, he said. The new Goethals Bridge, replacing a 90-year-old predecessor bridge, is “ten times better.” Likewise, the impact of the construction of ramp from I-78 that takes trucks right from the highway almost straight into GCT Bayonne, was “huge,” he said. “That had trucks in mind … The flyover makes it a direct approach into the port, for global, and it accommodates trucks better.”
However, some truckers believe that — for all the infrastructure projects — the only real solution is to extend terminal gate hours, enabling trucks to travel area highways in off hours when traffic is much thinner.
The stress on the north Jersey road system was highlighted this year in a report by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) that ranked a junction in Fort Lee on the New Jersey Turnpike as second on its 2018 Top 100 Truck Bottleneck List, which assesses locations around the nation based on various congestion metrics.
The Fort Lee location, 21 miles from the port, leads into the George Washington Bridge and is a key freight highway gateway to the Northeast and in to New York City, in large part because trucks are forbidden from using the city’s two tunnels from New Jersey into the city. The average speed at the location at peak traffic is about 25 miles per hour, and even at nonpeak times only hits an average of 40 miles per hour, according to the institute. It ranked an intersection on the I-285 in Atlanta, Georgia as the top bottleneck in the nation.
The recently completed projects around New York-New Jersey address smaller highway problems. The new Goethals Bridge, which opened in May, links New Jersey to Staten Island and is wider, with more lanes and improved access ramps. The bridge helps the flow of traffic to the GCT New York marine terminal, located in the shadow of the bridge on the New York side. More importantly, the bridge is the second main gateway into New York from New Jersey, after the George Washington Bridge.
Also in May, a years-long project to rebuild the ramp to Route 78 in Bayonne at a cost of $286 million was completed, smoothing access from area roads to the highway and providing direct access to the GCT Bayonne container terminal. Authorities are also putting the final touches to a $26.6 million project to upgrade the ramps from I-78 into Port Street in Newark, which runs into the port. That project is expected to be completed in December. Another ongoing project on I-78 is the rebuilding of the deck on an eight-mile stretch that leads to the Bayonne ramp, which has a 2022 completion date.
In June, New Jersey completed the first part of a four-year rehabilitation of the 86-year-old Pulaski Skyway, which passes through Newark, Kearny, and Jersey City, the heart of the port area. Although the skyway is closed to trucks, the shift of cars onto the reopened highway — New Jersey officials say 74,000 vehicles a day use it — immediately eased congestion on nearby roads, most notably Route 1 & 9, that are used by trucks heading for the port, truckers say. The project, with a final bill of $1 billion, is expected to run until 2025, including construction on five bridges and several ramps.
“It’s so congested in that area that any car off the street is an improvement,” Movshin said.
Plan to smooth traffic flow inside the port
The infrastructure improvements outside the port come as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is preparing to execute a major street project to smooth traffic flow inside the port. Set in an area about three miles long and a mile wide, the main part of the port area is hemmed in by the New Jersey Turnpike on one side and the Newark Bay, on which container ships arrive, on the other. As such, it has only three main entry and exit routes, with little maneuverability to enhance that other than to improve the roads that are there.
The port authority is preparing to solicit bids in the future on a $132 million project to upgrade the main entryway into the port, Port Street, by redesigning the traffic flow through a series of intersections, realigning and widening the roads, and upgrading the signal light system. The project would also replace a ramp that goes over the New Jersey Turnpike and sweeps trucks onto Corbin Street, the main artery through the port.
That follows a similar project on the southern entry into the port, completed more than five years ago, that reshaped existing roads to accommodate large trucks, adding two jug handles, widening the roads and smoothing turns into curves.
“By widening the roadways, we increased the capacity,” said Beth Rooney, assistant director of the port authority's port division. “We used to have a number of overturns [trucks] down on the south side of the port, because the turn was very, very tight and it was designed for trucks that were much shorter than they are today. So we realigned the curve on North Avenue and McLester [Street], and almost eliminated truck overturns and accidents.
The authority is now “looking to do the same thing on the Corbin Street-Port Street corridor,” she said.
A $480 million federally funded project outside of the port, to replace an 88-year-old vertical-lift road bridge — Wittpenn Bridge — on Route 7 over the Hackensack River, is also halfway complete. The bridge, which is expected to be completed in 2020, links Route 1 & 9 to the New Jersey Turnpike and takes truck traffic into the area around the port and the Meadowlands, which includes two CSX intermodal terminals — the railroad’s South Kearny terminal and the Croxton Intermodal Terminal.