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  November 2nd, 2017 | Written by

Sky’s the Limit

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  • As ships have grown in size the Bayonne Bridge’s clearance feet increasingly became an issue.
  • Raising the Bayonne Bridge’s clearance was critical to maintaining NYNJ's as 3rd largest container port in the US.
  • Big ship calls at port of NYNJ up 44 percent over last year.

Things are looking up at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Volume? Up. In fact, the port experienced its best month ever in August.

Big ships? Up. This year, 57 percent of arriving ships were 8,000 TEUs or larger, a nifty 44 percent increase from just five years ago.

Bayonne Bridge? Up … no, seriously.

You see, for its many positives—its iconic look, its near-90 years of service—the world’s fifth longest steel arch bridge had been below average in one critical aspect: the size of ships able to pass below it.

As ships have grown in size and the Panama Canal’s expansion allowed for larger ships to reach the East Coast from Asia, the bridge’s navigational clearance of 151 feet increasingly became an issue with some ships having to go to such lengths as folding down antenna masts or waiting for low tide to pass through.

To maintain its standing as the nation’s third largest container port, something would have to be done to get the bridge’s clearance to 215 feet. There were a lot of proposals, everything from tearing it down to utilizing car ferries and tunnels but, in the end, the solution was simple and extraordinary: Why not lift the bridge … up?

It was a relatively new engineer who came up with it,” said Bethann Rooney, the port’s assistant director of strategy and innovation. “It was one of those ideas that when you first hear it, it almost sounds too simple. But then, it just made a lot of sense.”

Still, the fact was that such a modification had never been attempted before. In fact, the project, known as Raise the Roadway, was so revolutionary that it not only required new thinking but custom-made building equipment. Despite that, Raise the Roadway managed not only to be completed ahead of schedule but without disruptions to car or ship traffic.

When the 14,400 TEU CMA CGM T. Roosevelt inaugurated the new bridge in early September, having just weeks earlier become the largest container ship to pass through the Panama Canal, everything was back to normal; only bigger, which turned out to make things better.

Consider that those record August numbers, with 631,404 TEUs representing a 7.9 increase from a year before, came about with 18 percent fewer port calls. And all that cargo was still able to reach more than 125 million potential customers within 36 hours since it has direct access to three Class 1 railroads serving the port.

All of that would be amazing on its own, but it is absolutely extraordinary considering all of this was done in and around the time the port not only dealt with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy but also found itself digging out from a winter storm that dropped nearly 70 inches of rain on the port.

We took all that and said ‘OK, boys and girls, we need to make sure our infrastructure policy and procedures remain competitive without disruptions to the supply chain,” Rooney said. “Our port performance task force did a six-month study of all of the things that can go bump in the night. What it showed us, all of us, was that we were a team. Even though we have fierce competitors here, we’re all working for the same goal and we had to figure out how to do it collaboratively.”

What’s been created, Rooney says, is an unprecedented sense of “excitement and optimism” across the port, excitement and optimism that has folks there speaking about moving up again.

We’d like to become the number two [container] port in the country,” she said. “I mean, we’re happy with being number three but, you know, why stop?”