THREE MEALS AT ONE SITTING

THREE MEALS AT ONE SITTING

The 10,000-TEU ship is almost here, but why do we want it? Our ports aren't big enough or deep enough, our terminals and highways are already too congested, our rail links aren't adequate, and our national planning is nonexistent. The strangest thing about this development is the widely held assumption that these monster ships will improve transportation efficiency. In fact, they will do just the opposite for all aspects of the system, except for possibly a few foreign lines that will save a few bucks per TEU on the ocean leg (IF they can fill the ships). For the rest of us, the experience will be like eating all three meals a day at the same sitting -- same amount of food, but it will play hell with our digestive system.

To accommodate these ships, the foreign carriers, now joined by U.S. ports, are telling Congress that U.S. taxpayers should pay for dredging ports to 50 feet. I wonder how taxpayers in Baltimore or Norfolk feel about subsidizing the work of blasting through rock to get New York harbor down to 50 feet -- or how citizens in Wyoming view the importance of paying to dredge any port to 50 feet to make a foreign ship line more profitable. If a port wants to play this game with the big carriers, let it find private funding. This taxpayer doesn't believe it's in his interest to subsidize foreign carriers.Dredging is but one aspect of the subsidy that these carriers expect in return for the 'favor' of bringing these behemoths to our ports. Terminal acreage, gates, cranes, highways and railways would have to be enlarged to avoid complete gridlock, and let's not even talk about the environmental impact of these 'improvements.' Who's going to pay for all of this? And who decides it makes sense to do all of this merely to create marginal efficiencies on the ocean side? Is anybody home at the DOT? Or is transportation planning being shifted to the Defense Department along with maritime subsidies?

Does it make sense for the Port of New York and New Jersey to spend $1.8 billion of public funds over the next five years on port improvement projects that will inevitably lead to more dredging needs as the Hudson River fills in to the depth that Mother Nature intended? That figure was the port's projection in testimony before Congress several weeks ago, where port officials also testified that 'the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the nation will enjoy $270 million in annual transportation cost savings due to larger vessels calling on the Port of New York and New Jersey.' If any congressman believes that, I have some waterfront land just outside the dikes in Holland that I'd like to sell him.

We can't afford to be guided by the greed of a few foreign-owned steamship lines and silly projections like the one above from the Corps of Engineers. It wouldn't surprise me if a broad look at all aspects of the monster ship operations resulted in a conclusion that this nation would be better off letting Halifax and Freeport pay for the infrastructure costs of handling the 10,000-TEU ships, and feeding East Coast ports with vessel service from those two hubs. If Maersk Sealand wants to spend part of its profit on a new terminal in Norfolk to handle the new ships, more power to it. Just don't ask those of us in New York to chip in.

There's one possible silver lining to the likelihood that the world's major trades will be flooded with huge new container ships in a few years. As those of us who haven't been sleeping for the last 40 years may have noticed, the American merchant marine has almost disappeared. When the big new ships enter service, each will replace several smaller vessels. Unless world trade grows much faster than projections, container trades will again be overtonnaged and many ships will be on the market for far less than construction costs.

If anyone in the administration has enough foresight, and if Congress could be persuaded to permit a short-term reflagging program, the government could create incentives for private investors to purchase enough of these ships to reinvigorate the U.S. merchant marine almost overnight. This is not just a pipe dream; I was involved in a similar effort in Hawaii a number of years ago that resulted in the creation of the only deepwater U.S.-flag cruise operation in modern times, and hundreds of U.S. jobs that have continued to this day. It only requires leadership, which I admit is in short supply in this industry today.

Conrad H.C. Everhard retired in 1999 as chairman of Cho Yang (America) after more than 40 years in the shipping

industry. He lives in Palm Beach, Fla., and New York.