New York, New Jersey making room for cargo ships

April 19, 2012 5:29:51 AM PDT
Imagine an infrastructure project that has the support of organized labor and big business, both political parties and a fiscally conservative governor who not long ago pulled the plug on another large-scale public works undertaking.

You would be imagining the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, a $1 billion project to make the ports of New Jersey and New York ready to handle larger container ships in coming years, efforts that supporters say are crucial to the ports' economic future.

Raising the height of the 80-year-old span, combined with an ongoing $2 billion harbor-deepening project, will allow the ports to accommodate larger, so-called post-Panamax cargo ships that will be able to traverse the Panama Canal once an expansion of the canal is completed in 2014. Ports up and down the East Coast are in a race to make modifications to their facilities to accept the larger ships.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Patrick Foye formally launched a phase of the harbor deepening Wednesday in Staten Island that will drill through four-million-year-old sediment to help facilitate the dredging.

"If we want our region's maritime terminals to stay competitive, then it is important that we be able to accommodate those new megaships and their full loads," Bloomberg said.

The Port Authority has applied to the federal government for fast-track environmental permitting for the bridge-raising project, which could shave six months off the completion time, experts say. A decision could come by the end of the month. The roadway will be raised 64 feet to 215 feet.

"Every day, every week is valuable," Foye said. "The sooner any large project is done, the sooner costs stop increasing, including financing costs. We're very focused on accelerating the pace of projects."

If the environmental permitting process is fast-tracked, that portion of the bridge project could be completed by the end of the year and construction could begin next spring, said Joseph Curto, president of the New York Shipping Association. Work could be completed sometime in 2016.

There's a lot at stake for the several terminals that make up the New Jersey-New York port system and support about 270,000 jobs on-site or in related industries. Foye said the harbor expansion could double the volume of cargo passing through the port in the next 10 years.

Getting the bridge project done as quickly as possible could lessen the chance that the bigger ships could opt for different East Coast ports, said New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chair of New Jersey's Assembly transportation committee.

"There may be a point in time that an operator will say it's not economical to bring these ships into other ports," Wisniewski said. "Once it's done, it's hard to undo it."

Curto said though there is fierce competition from other East Coast ports such as Savannah, Ga., and Norfolk, Va., another source of competition is railroads, which can carry cargo faster but are more expensive than shipping.

"We can't price ourselves out of business or the cargo will find somewhere else to go," he said.

Support for the bridge project has come from all corners, and most notably from Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has called the bridge-raising "crucial to the economic future of New Jersey and the region."

It's a far cry from New Jersey's recent attempt at a huge infrastructure project, the building of a second rail tunnel into Manhattan that was projected to create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce traffic congestion. Christie's decision to cancel the $8.7 billion project in 2010 produced an extraordinary level of partisan political sniping. The debate resurfaced this month when a GAO report requested by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, concluded the cost overruns probably were lower than Christie anticipated.

Associated Press writer Samantha Gross contributed to this story from Staten Island.

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