Last July, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that its ExpressRail systems handled its five-millionth container since opening in 1991. The announcement was emblematic of the investments the Port Authority has been making in ExpressRail and in other aspects of port infrastructure. It also could foreshadow a change in the mix of cargo handled by the port.
“We have been building out our ExpressRail system,” said Dennis Lombardi, deputy director of the Port Authority’s Port Commerce Department. “By the time we are done we will have invested $600 million in on-dock rail. Intermodal rail now represents 15 percent of the freight coming through thet port. We’d like to see that grow.”
ExpressRail provides on-dock rail service to terminals in Elizabeth, Newark, and Staten Island and is currently being built out in Jersey City. “We have real on-dock rail,” said Lombardi. “We built a flyover to the Port Newark Container Terminal and a flyover and depressed roadway to get to Elizabeth, so freight moving by road and rail are no longer mixing it up on local streets.” The Port Authority has spent $100 million on port roadway improvements and has plans to spend another $400 million for further improvements in the future.
Since rail tends to move the longer hauls to and from the ports, an increase in ExpressRail’s business means that the port of New York and New Jersey could increasingly be competing for cargo moving to the nation’s heartland, and not just those destined for the huge numbers of consumers who reside in the region. “Serving inland destinations will become a more important part of the port’s business in coming years,” said Lombardi. “Both carriers and beneficial cargo owners make the decision about where cargo lands, and we are creating an environment in which cargo will naturally want to move through here. We believe we will get a lot of new business as the ships that can move through an expanded Panama Canal get bigger and carriers are more interested in establishing hub ports. The efficiencies we are creating by building out rail capacity is important in making the port more competitive.”
One of the impediments to the handling of the larger ships the Port Authority expects has been the Bayonne Bridge which spans one of the channels leading to the Newark Bay and Staten Island port terminals and which offers a draft too low for the new behemoths to negotiate. Earlier this year, the U.S. Coast Guard gave final approval to a Port Authority plan to raise the bridge’s roadway from 151 feet mean high water to 215 feet, enough to allow the newer ships of 13,000, or even 14,000, teu to pass under it. Construction is now well under way.
“We anticipate completion of the roadway raising by the end of 2015, so that the obstruction to ships will be out of the way by that point,” said Lombardi. “Completion of the new roadways on the bridge will take another two years after that. It is progressing nicely.”
The Port Authority, along with the terminal operators, are currently in the process of implementing a radio frequency identification (RFID) system that will expedite the entry of trucks onto terminals and provide security benefits. “We currently have a truck drayage registry that requires all trucks coming into the port to register where they are going in the port,” said Lombardi. “With the new system, we anticipate giving out around 15,000 RFID tags, most of which have already been issued. From a security perspective, this will provide us with real-time knowledge of who is on the terminals as required by Coast Guard regulations. On the business side, the system will expedite trucks through gate systems in and out.”
Once the new system goes into effect, each driver will be required to carry a Port Authority-issued SeaLink card and a federally issues Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC). Each truck authorized to do business at the port will be equipped with an RFID tag. “That way we will know the identities of all drivers and all trucks on terminals at any given time in real time,” said Lombardi. “That is impossible with a manual system.”
Among the other business benefits of the system, Lombardi anticipates truckers to be able to log onto a website to view information on driving time to terminals and turnaround time within terminals. “I think the trucking community is looking forward to the transparency the system will provide,” said Lombardi. “Terminal truckers are the eyes and ears of the beneficial cargo owners. Providing this kind of information, as well as improving service, can only enhance the port’s reputation among those who decide where and how cargo moves.”
The RFID system is a joint project of the Port Authority and the terminal operators. The Port Authority provided a portion of the funding for the project.
The cost of doing business at the port of New York and New Jersey remains high, Lombardi acknowledged, “but this is an expensive region where everything is expensive.” “However,” he added, “the area that we serve has a huge number of consumers and cargo naturally wants to come here. It is more cost effective and environmentally friendly to come here than to offload at another port and either truck the cargo to this region or put it on some other kind of conveyance.”
But some cargo was diverted over the summer to other ports because of a technology glitch at one of the terminals. See the accompanying sidebar for more on that.
The port has in the last several years suffered from an imbalance of imports over exports, a situation which has led to an accumulation of shipping containers at the port. That situation has begun to be addressed thanks to increasing levels of agricultural exports originating in the Midwest.
“We have seen a surge in grain coming in by freight train, swung into containers here at the port, and loaded for export,” said Lombardi. “It has been a pretty good business. It is difficult to reposition containers to the Midwest but we have an ample supply and we have captured quite a bit of that business. It has grown in importance to us and it is going to continue to grow.
“We think we have a good mousetrap,” Lombardi added, “With the bigger ships coming in, our eye is on the expansion of the Panama Canal. With the raising of Bayonne Bridge and the building out of ExpressRail, we think our business will continue to grow because we have all of the infrastructure in place.”