What do construction projects in New York and Central America have in common? Both involve large-scale engineering feats that support a changing global maritime transportation system. The Bayonne Bridge expansion in New York and New Jersey will raise a congested 150 foot high bridge an additional 60 feet. The recently completed Panama Canal expansion widened a century-old shipping canal by 70 feet and deepened it by 20 feet. Despite being located 2,200 miles apart, these projects are united in purpose: to accommodate a new generation of massive container ships carrying unprecedented volumes of goods around the globe.
Residents in Elizabeth, New Jersey, are accustomed to the sound of horns from the container ships that pull into the sprawling Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, just miles from the Bayonne Bridge. Ships enter the marine terminal stacked with shipping containers, or TEUs, packed with cargo from around the world. A single TEU, which stands for twenty foot equivalent unit, can accommodate 200 mattresses, 50 refrigerators, or 400 flat screen televisions. Most cargo ships can accommodate up to 9,000 TEUs, or more than 12 million cubic feet of cargo space.
New York, Baltimore, Savannah, Charleston, and other East Coast ports are engaged in infrastructure development projects to accommodate even larger ships that carry up to 12,000 TEUs, dubbed the “New-Panamax” fleet. These massive ships, which are nearly a quarter mile long, are expected to become more common following the expansion of the Panama Canal, which concluded in 2016.
Though it has traditionally been faster to transport goods from Asia to U.S. markets through West Coast ports, the increased cargo volume of New-Panamax ships has made transit through the expanded Panama Canal to East Coast ports a cheaper alternative because the route avoids costly land-based transportation. Given these factors, the Panama Canal expansion could alter shipping activity between coasts and among East Coast port cities.
A number of U.S. ports are now racing to adapt their infrastructure to meet the demands of the New-Panamax ships and to compete with port expansions in cities such as Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Miami, and New York. Following the completion of the Panama Canal in June 2016, only four East Coast ports are capable of accommodating New-Panamax ships.
As the ocean becomes increasingly busy, maritime transportation networks will continue to innovate and expand to address a growing global demand for goods.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.