Ports up and down the East Coast are spending billions of dollars on expansion projects to accommodate new, giant Asian super-freighters that haul as much as three times the cargo as current ships — and will begin coming through the Panama Canal when expansion is complete in January 2015.
Ditto with ports on the Gulf Coast, which also will begin receiving the giant ships for the first time. The ships currently only use deeper West Coast ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.
But here in Connecticut, which has three deep-water ports in New Haven, Bridgeport and New London, officials say the kinds of changes that would be needed to handle the new, bigger ships aren’t feasible and aren’t likely to happen.
“It’s outside of the realm of possibilities,” said Chuck Beck, transportation maritime manager for the state Department of Transportation.
Current ships that traverse the Panama Canal are up to 900 or 1,000 feet long and 106 feet wide, draw about 39.5 feet of water and carry the equivalent of 4,500 to 5,000 20-foot shipping containers.
The post-expansion ships, however, will be up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide and will draw about 50 feet of water and carry up to 14,000 20-foot shipping containers, according to Aaron Ellis, director of communications for the American Association of Port Authorities.
“You have to imagine that the largest of these ships are literally three times the size of the ships that can fit through the Panama Canal now,” Ellis said.
But Beck and Port of New Haven Executive Director Judi Sheiffele both said that Connecticut’s ports may stand to gain from additional ancillary traffic from the big ships.
New Haven officials have long talked about trying to land “feeder barge” service that would use the Port of New Haven to bring in materials offloaded from larger ships in larger ports such as New York and Norfolk, Va., and Beck said there is an individual looking to provide it.
Sheiffele and Beck both also said there could be residual effects for Connecticut ports for being along the so-called “M-95” marine highway, a concept that the federal Maritime Administration established with an eye to encouraging shippers to move containers along the coast via ships rather than overland on trucks.
Scheiffele said that while so much attention has been focused on the soon-to-be-expanded Panama Canal, the Port of New Haven has “just as much potential for cargo from Singapore and Vietnam coming through the Suez Canal.”
While the expanded Panama Canal has been portrayed as a “game-changer” for the shipping industry, a recent article in the American Shipper trade magazine suggests that changes might be more subtle than many people expect and that how things are shipped to the eastern U.S. will still come down to logistics and which method will get goods to market faster.
The ports of Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., meanwhile, already have completed work to dredge deeper channels and make other improvements that make them ready to receive the new ships.
Ports ranging from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Miami, Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Philadelphia and New York are lining up the funds to do similarly expensive work to deepen channels to the necessary 45 to 50 feet and expand dockside facilities, according to Ellis of the AAPA.
New York is even ready to spend $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey by 64 feet, New York/New Jersey Port Authority spokesman Hunter Pendarvis recently told USA Today.
It’s not just the largest ships that they’re trying to accommodate, Ellis said.
“There’s a very small percentage of those really big ships that constitute the world shipping fleet,” he said. “Most of the ships are smaller.”
But even if the you take out the largest behemoths, “ships that have been built since the 1980s have not been able to get through there,” Ellis said.
But while the scramble is on at other ports, here in Connecticut, where the ports of New Haven and Bridgeport have 35-foot channels and the port of New London has a 40-foot channel, no such expansion plans are under way.
Even if a Connecticut port were in a position to take on a major dredging project, “You have to have a place that can handle a 1,200-foot-long vessel,” Beck said. “There’s no place in Connecticut that can handle that. The piers and bulkheads that presently exist in Connecticut aren’t anywhere close to being able to handle those kinds of ships.”
In addition, “the lay-down area for containers in all three of Connecticut’s deepwater ports is very limited,” and “Connecticut is at very much of a disadvantage, being right smack in the middle between two large, deep-draft ports,” he said.
According to an overview on Connecticut ports at portconnecticut.com, the Port of New Haven, which is actually about eight private facilities, with additional resources owned by the Port Authority, handles petroleum products, chemicals, scrap metal, lumber, metal products, cement, sand, stone and general break-bulk cargo.
Only Gateway and New Haven terminals handle dry cargo. The port collectively has six cranes, 380,000 square feet of warehouse space and 56 acres of open storage.
The Port Authority itself owns 12 of those acres, which formerly were used for lumber and steel that no longer come in to New Haven and “potentially, this acreage could be used for dry cargo,” said Scheiffele during a recent drive and walk around New Haven’s port facilities.
The Port of Bridgeport has just one crane, 125,000 square feet of warehouse space and 20 acres of outside storage, while the Port of New London has cranes “available as needed” and has one 50,000-square-foot warehouse and just 10 acres of open storage.
“It’s not just the dredging,” said Sheiffele. “If you’re bringing in vessels like that, you need landside resources” that Connecticut ports just don’t have, she said.
But the competitive difficulties don’t end there.
Bridgeport and the federal government appear to be having trouble even maintaining the port’s 35-foot channel — which hasn’t been dredged since 1964 — even though the port of Bridgeport in 2008 lost the Turbana banana business that was its primary customer to Philadelphia, which was better able to handle bigger ships.
The state of Pennsylvania also provided a package of financial incentives to entice Turbana to move, Beck said.
Turbana now trucks its bananas to Connecticut over Interstate 95. The port of Bridgeport, like the Port of New Haven, now primarily receives petroleum products, Beck said.
The Port Authority of Bridgeport, meanwhile, hasn’t had a permanent executive director since 2009, when city officials pushed out long-time Executive Director Joseph Riccio, according to the Connecticut Post.
Neither acting director Andrew Nunn, who is Bridgeport’s chief administrative officer, nor Port Authority staff returned calls for comment.
New London has a port authority in its infancy, but cargo primarily comes in at the State Pier in New London, which is run by the state Department of Transportation.