By Conrad Everhard
Editor’s Note: The following is an edited version of a speech by Conrad Everhard, delivered to the Dart Alumni Group, May 2, 2001
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 non-existent. 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 handful of foreign lines who 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 wreak havoc with our digestive system.
In order to accommodate these ships, the foreign carriers, now joined by US ports, are telling Congress that we, the US taxpayers, should pay the bill 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 for dredging any port to 50 feet in order to make China Shipping Container Lines more profitable? If a port wants to play this game with the big carriers, let them find private funding for it. This taxpayer doesn’t believe it’s in his interest to subsidize foreign steamship lines.
Dredging is but one aspect of the subsidy that these carriers are expecting in return for the “favor” of bringing these behemoths to our ports. Terminal acreage, gates, cranes, highways, and railways would all have to be enlarged to avoid complete gridlock, and let’s not even talk about the environmental impacts of these “improvements.” Who’s going to pay for all this? Moreover, who decides that it makes sense to do all of this in order to create marginal new efficiencies on the ocean side? Is anybody home at DOT? Or is transportation planning being shifted to Defense, along with the maritime subsidy program?
Does it make sense for the Port of New York 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 their projection in testimony before Congress several years ago, when they also testified, “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.
This subject is one that requires more than a few minutes in a speech. It demands the attention of whatever national planners we have these days to avoid wasting billions of dollars and years of misdirected effort. 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 the aspects of 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 them, and feeding a large number of East Coast ports with vessel service from those two hubs. Of course, if Maersk Sealand wants to spend part of its recent $1.2 billion profits on a new terminal in Norfolk to handle the new ships, more power to them. Just don’t ask any of us here in New York to chip in.
The likelihood that the world’s major trades will be flooded with huge new containerships in a few years also presents an opportunity as a by-product of that flurry of new construction. As those of us who haven’t been sleeping for the past 40 years may have noticed, the American Merchant Marine has either disappeared, or is