The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey once predicted its ports would move 9.5 million TEUs — port lingo for standard shipping containers — in 2029 or 2030.
But the pandemic bumped that up by about eight years as the ports moved that historic level of goods in 2022.
It was a 5.7% increase from 2021 and a “staggering” 27% increase from 2019, Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority, told those in attendance of Wednesday’s “State of the Port” event that included 175 representatives from the many different cogs of the shipping industry.
In addition to seeing 27 straight months of record volume, the New York and New Jersey ports surpassed California to become the No. 1 port of call in the country for the last four months of 2022, a position historically held by the Port of Los Angeles or the Port of Long Beach.
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“While other ports struggled with severe levels of congestion causing both unwanted delays and reliability issues for shippers, the Port of New York and New Jersey and all of its stakeholders demonstrated an exemplary management of cargo vessels to avoid the severe congestion seen elsewhere,” Cotton said.
This was, in large part, because of investments made well before the pandemic with the dredging of local waterways and raising the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate larger ships and expanding freight rail access, which now allows trains carrying cargo from New York and New Jersey to reach multiple midwest locations and California.
This year, however, Port Director Bethann Rooney predicts “a softening of the market,” which port officials started to see in the last few months of 2022, as container movements returned to “more normalized levels.”
“We must not rest, but take advantage of this time to advance some of the capacity and efficiency initiatives across the entire supply chain that the frenetic pace of the last 33 months has made it difficult to do,” Rooney said.
One of the biggest changes, she said, will be transitioning to 24/7 operations at the ports. They receive goods through what’s called Twenty Equivalent Units — TEUs — which is the industry term for measuring cargo. TEUs refer to the 20-foot cargo containers seen on cargo ships.
“Just 36% of available hours are used to receive and deliver trucks at the gate…this is not sustainable when we expect to continue to grow upwards of 14 million TEUs in the not-too-distant future,” Rooney said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, as I said, but we need to think about how we’re going to get there incrementally.”
A big part of that will be shoring up the workforce at the ports.
John Nardi, president of the Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey that represents terminal companies, said they are especially focused on hiring, in partnership with the International Longshoreman Association, the union representing maritime workers.
“Everywhere you go, the big issue we have is getting people to work,” he said.
Hiring at the ports is among the issues raised in a court case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as New Jersey has attempted to dissolve the Waterfront Commission, a bistate authority created to oversee hiring and prevent the influence of organized crime at the ports. On one side, the argument is the commission has hampered the union’s ability to hire, while the other side says the commission still provides a critical service of policing the docks and hiring.
Nardi reiterated the association’s views on Wednesday that the commission should be disbanded and instead use the New Jersey State Police to vet port hires and activity on the water.
“We think they’ll be much more pragmatic and better for the port,” Nardi said. Oral arguments on the case are scheduled for Feb. 27.
Rooney also highlighted infrastructure improvements necessary to efficiently move all the vehicles that move containers to and from the ports.
There are projects in the works now to update and redesign traffic flow on roads and bridges near the Port of Newark and to create a new rail connection to improve efficiency. As dredging efforts were being completed around 2016, larger ships were already in the works, so more channels will be studied to see how they can be deepened.
Other investments and changes coming to the port include sustainability improvements, including phasing out trucks with an engine model year of 1998 or older starting in July, adding infrastructure for future electric trucks and charging, and studying the grid system to see where enhancements are needed to handle a more electric future at the ports.
“We are on the cusp of what I would say is another revolution or transformation within the maritime industry as we look to right-size the supply chain,” Rooney said.