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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

One of the topics of discussion At Monday, October 26, 2009 Port of New York-New Jersey's 9th Annual Port Industry Day, will be "what to do about the Bayonne Bridge."
The span, one of the most beautiful in the Harbor is said to be an obstacle to large container ships passing under it on the way to and from Newark Bay. It's clearance of 150+ feet above the Kill Van Kull, depending on the tide, means that some of today's ships must fold down antenna masts, or wait for low tide to pass through. The problem will become more serious after the Panama Canal is widened and new generation of so called post Panamax ships that can potentially carry double the load of current vessels are expected to call on some East Coast Ports.

Some vocal Port interests have proposed replacing the bridge. The Port Authority has commissioned a study of the question by the Army Corps of Engineers, and has authorized up to $10 million for planning and engineering services to develop options to deal with the bridge's low clearance.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently released a study that looked at three options to deal with the height-challenged bridge. The "quickest" option is a $1.3 billion project to jack up the bridge 40 percent above its 150 feet which might be completed by 2019 at the earliest. It will need a clearance of 215 feet to handle the new ships. Another option is to build a whole new bridge which would take until 2022. The most expensive option would be to get rid of the bridge altogether and replace it with a tunnel through which traffic would traverse under the Kill Van Kull. This option would take to 2024 to complete. There has been a lobbying effort by port interests to "move quickly."

I guess there have been sillier, or more expensive, and/or less needed projects proposed (like the infamous bridge to nowhere), but I am hard pressed to understand the logic behind, and the zeal to move forward on this ridiculous project.

Mariners, in particular the Pilots that have to navigate the narrow, rocky, dangerous channel called the Kill Van Kull, a tidal strait that connects The Upper New York Bay, and the Ports of Elizabeth and Newark in Newark Bay are adamant that the bridge is not the problem, but the location of the Ports and the logistics of moving huge ships in a channel that was never envisioned to accommodate them.

The Bayonne Bridge is the fourth longest steel arch bridge in the world, and was the longest in the world at the time of its completion. It connects Bayonne, New Jersey with Staten Island, New York, spanning the Kill Van Kull.
The bridge was designed by master bridge-builder Othmar Ammann and the architect Cass Gilbert. It was built by the Authority and opened on November 15, 1931,

The primary purpose of the bridge was to allow vehicle traffic from Staten Island to reach Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel.
The designers were far sighted enough to include the option of rail service across the bridge.

Ironically, there are less dangerous and less expensive alternatives than trying to get these monster ships to an inappropriate Port. Unlike the European Union, the United States does not have a comprehensive port plan therefore each port on the East Coast, from Florida to Nova Scotia is competing for the next generation of very large container ships. Instead of designating certain ports with deep unobstructed facilities as feeder or hub ports, and creating a fleet of very fast smaller ships to move container cargo to less accessible, but no less important ports in a coordinated way – US ports are competing with each other by building duplicate facilities for the few very large ships that are likely to call on East Coast Ports in the next twenty years.

When the Army transferred the Military Ocean Terminal Bayonne (MOTBY) to the City of Bayonne, those of us with an interest in the port, dredging, and the environment were heartened by the plans that included a state of the art container terminal for the largest of the ships that may call on the Port of NY and NJ (the so called post Panamax 10,000 teu container ships). The Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority (BLRA) asserted that they would bring a port developer on board who would raise $500 million for a new container port, bringing with it more than 3000 jobs.

Not only could the former MOTBY be the closest port to deep channels – it will save billions of public dollars, avoid the height limitations of the Bayonne Bridge, and reduce the significant environmental impacts that will be caused by continuing to attempt to deepen the dangerous, narrow Kill Van Kull, and dredging more of the contaminated sediments of Newark Bay – the new port on the Harbor side of Bayonne, could be built using the newest most efficient container management technology including alternative fuel and electric vehicles, and direct transfer of containers from ship to trains or ships to container barges, or ships to container rail cars on barges.

The additional benefit of a new container port at MOTBY is its juxtaposition to the Global Terminals, and the Greenville rail yards. The MOTBY Port also creates a cross harbor synergy if the "cross harbor float" system is re-invigorated as is envisioned by the Port Authority of NY and NJ the new owners of the Cross Harbor Railroad. Taking all that into account, MOTBY is the premiere maritime asset in the Harbor and one of the most valuable maritime properties in the world.

The (pre-real estate meltdown) plan proposed by the Bayonne Redevelopment Authority (dubbed the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor) is for high rise housing and offices, with a yacht harbor in the last huge graving (dry) dock in the harbor, and only a minimum amount of port commerce space, what appears to be one cruise ship berth. The dry dock on MOTBY is one of the world’s largest graving dry docks and is the only one remaining in New York Harbor after the dry docks in Brooklyn were lost under a parking lot for a non water dependant furniture store.

I can understand Bayonne’s impulse to become part of the "gold coast" of the Hudson, but does it make sense to lose a significant number of good paying, port related jobs for the short term and questionable benefits of housing or the loss of public access and working waterfront as other Harbor communities have experienced?

I am convinced that if cooler heads can prevail, a compromise can still be reached. One in which the significant acreage at MOTBY be used as a container port and port related commerce, while reserving some smaller portion for housing, commercial and recreation. The two are not incompatible. Some of the most desirable housing in Seattle WA and Portland ME overlooks the port and its complex and interesting operations.

This solution would not only save one of the most beautiful bridges in the Port, but would be a more efficient use of the $1-10 billion that it would cost to modify or eliminate the Bayonne Bridge. A cross harbor float, rail, and port infrastructure investment will provide more port jobs, reinvigorate the Brooklyn and Bayonne waterfront, and will be a smarter use of scarce resources.