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Ports Plan for New Vessels

Port of Virginia in Norfolk.
The Port of Virginia, in Norfolk, is currently the only East Coast port that operates a 50 ft deep channel and can routinely accommodate post-Panamax container ships. Courtesy of the Port of Virginia 

Cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are planning on deepening and expanding their ports to accommodate post-Panamax vessels in time for the completion of the Panama Canal expansion project in 2014. 

January 24, 2012—Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities are deepening and expanding their ports to accommodate post-Panamax vessels—ships that carry two or three times the cargo of standard freighters—in preparation of the completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2014. A Panamax vessel is the common name given to the largest-sized vessel that can currently pass through the Panama Canal, but the canal itself is undergoing a major expansion, deepening, and renovation to enable it to carry shipping vessels and supertankers that are even larger (Click here to see the Civil Engineering magazine online feature). Any city that can upgrade its port to accommodate these supersized vessels stands to increase its revenues and relevance as shippers seek to move more goods at a lower cost.

To prepare for post-Panamax ships, these ports need to dredge their harbors to a depth of 50 ft, but they may also need to create or expand berths, install wider cranes, and build or improve cargo terminals to handle the cargo. While many West Coast ports already have deep channels and appropriate cranes and facilities, major East Coast ports from New York to Miami, as well as such Gulf Coast ports as New Orleans, have been working to catch up.

The Port of Virginia in Norfolk is currently the only East Coast port that operates a 50 ft deep channel and can routinely accommodate post-Panamax container ships, and it has been ready since 2007, according to says Joe D. Harris, a spokesman for the Virginia Port Authority. The Port of Virginia also has the largest cranes on the market, which can reach across the cargo vessels’ widths. Although the Port of Baltimore will open its 50 ft channel in August to become the second East Coast port able to accommodate these vessels, Harris says that the Port of Virginia “is the only East Coast port that is ready from a transportation infrastructure standpoint, a terminal standpoint, and a deep water standpoint. The pieces are in place. What we are missing now is the really big vessels being placed in the East Coast rotations.”

As shippers gradually introduce new vessels into their operations, those ships will likely be the larger ones, Harris says.
Currently, the average vessel size is between 3,000 to 4,500 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs)—a unit of cargo capacity in which a 20 ft long container equals 1 TEU.

“We have been seeing some services use vessels that are in excess of nine thousand TEUs,” Harris says. “The next class is around eleven thousand. Once we see the nine thousands on a fairly regular basis, they will be the workhorse vessel.” The 9,000 TEU class of vessels can access all ports, Harris says, but often have to time their arrivals and departures with the tides; it is the 11,000 TEU ships that will require consistent 50 ft channels.

The State of Maryland has entered into a $1.8-billion public-private partnership with Ports America to operate its post-Panamax berth at the Port of Baltimore; the project will include a 50-year lease to the Iselin, New Jersey-based terminal operator. The new berth will have four extra-large post-Panamax cranes that reach across 22 containers and will accommodate vessels up to 14,000 TEU in size.

Such cities as Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah; Miami and Jacksonville, Florida; and New York City are also readying for post-Panamax ships but have encountered some obstacles along the way.

The South Carolina Ports Authority is currently engaged in a 10-year, $1.3-billion infrastructure expansion at the Port of Charleston that will include a new container terminal, and the port also hopes to deepen its shipping channel to 50 ft. The Port of Charleston is the fourth-busiest container ship port in the country and has the deepest water in the region, its channel measuring 45 ft at low tide and 51 ft at high tide. For this reason, Charleston can already accommodate post-Panamax ships at certain times, handling about four calls a week of 9,000 TEU ships when the tide is at 48 ft. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes that the Charleston Harbor would be the cheapest port in the region to deepen to 50 ft, according to Allison Skipper, a manager of public relations at the South Carolina Ports Authority. “The deepening project would provide Charleston the post-Panamax harbor needed to effectively serve the needs of the Southeast region,” says Skipper. “[Charleston]is swiftly growing in population, and is the nation’s hub of exported manufactured goods and agricultural products.”

The nearby Port of Savannah in Georgia is the second-busiest container port behind Los Angeles, but at 42 ft deep is one of the shallowest East Coast ports. Large ships have to wait until high tide to traverse the channel, which is expensive because ships have to wait at sea and leave cargo on the docks while they do. The Port of Savannah faces concerns about the dredging of sediment that might cause groundwater contamination.

“Both [Charleston and Savannah] want to dredge but it is expensive, time consuming, and permit intensive on the federal and state side,” says Harris. “There are many environmental issues, such as wildlife.” Both ports are seeking federal and state money toward their dredging efforts. “If they started tomorrow and worked around the clock they won’t be ready in time for Panama,” Harris says.

Another concern for both Savannah and Charleston is where to place dredged material. The Port of Virginia had the advantage of being able to pump the sand from the Elizabeth River and the Chesapeake Bay onto a disposal area on a nearby island.

The Port of Miami’s $2-billion dredging project was on schedule for 2014 but was recently put on hold due to environmental concerns about the amount of sediment that might end up in Biscayne Bay from blasting the channel’s limestone bottom. And efforts by the Jacksonville Port Authority to work with the Corps to prepare its shipping channel for post-Panamax ships by 2016 have been delayed due to permitting issues, the need for a navigation and dredging study, and funding. A new $300-million terminal, slated to open in early 2014, has been delayed due to cost.

The Port of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which operates the third-largest container port in the nation, has a $2.3-billion project under way to deepen its harbor to 50 ft. The Port has conducted dredging to remove sediment from the channel’s limestone floor but has an overhead issue: the Bayonne Bridge, which connects New York and New Jersey, is currently too low to allow post-Panamax ships to pass. The Port Authority is planning to raise the bridge 64 ft at a cost of $1 billion.

With more than 6,000 vessels moving via the Mississippi River per year, the Port of New Orleans can already accommodate Panamax ships, and in the past 10 years has devoted more than $400 million to new state-of-the-art facilities—container terminals, cranes, storage, and such transportation infrastructure as rail lines—to prepare for post-Panamax vessels to arrive in 2014. “Through investment and commitment, the Port of New Orleans is readying itself for the increased cargo an expanded Panama Canal will bring to the Gulf Coast,” said Gary LaGrange, the president and chief executive officer of the Port of New Orleans, in a press release. Working in the Port of New Orleans’ favor is its 3 km wharf—the world’s largest—which can accommodate up to 15 vessels at the same time.


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