You’d be forgiven if you thought the last few years in the shipping world felt more like a white-knuckle roller coaster ride than a smooth voyage at sea. But as over 200 regional supply chain leaders came together at the Jersey City waterfront for the 2024 State of the Port of New York and New Jersey, the message was clear: The seaport has emerged stronger after these few years of the unexpected.
“It is clear that the state of the Port of New York and New Jersey is strong,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton with myriad of harbor activity as his backdrop.
“What distinguishes the Port of New York and New Jersey is the community, the strength of cooperation amongst everyone in this room and the organizations you represent.”Rick Cotton, Executive Director, Port Authority
The depth of that cooperation was on display throughout the pandemic, when cargo volume at the East Coast’s busiest container port surged to unprecedented levels – more than 25 percent of 2019 volume – forcing novel solutions and innovative workarounds to handle the glut of goods. In 2023, volumes returned to their pre-pandemic trajectory, a 4.4 percent growth from 2019. Now shippers, terminal operators, logistics providers and other port stakeholders have some “breathing room,” in the words of Port Director Bethann Rooney, to prepare for the future they previewed during the pandemic.
“We’re exactly where all of the forecasts indicated that we were going to be,” Rooney said. “We’ve had a look at what our future is like, and we have six or seven years to prepare to handle that volume again.”
The preparation for that growth is underway at the Port of New York and New Jersey, as multiple capital improvement projects kicked off in 2023. Ground was broken on the $220 million Port Street Corridor Improvement Project, overhauling Port Newark’s road network to allow for safer, more efficient trucking operations. The port’s on-dock ExpressRail system is also being upgraded as the final design of the Southbound Connector to give freight rail operations additional flexibility and capacity will be completed by midyear 2024 with construction to follow.
Perhaps the most impactful project will take place in the harbor itself. In December, the Port Authority approved $19.2 million to study next steps as the port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers look to deepen the port’s shipping channels to 55 feet. The project would allow the port to accommodate bigger container ships and ease harbor navigation. The study now includes channels leading to the Howland Hook Marine Terminal on Staten Island, after new operator CMA CGM pledged to modernize the facility and attract additional cargo activity.
“We completed deepening of the major federal channels to 50 feet in 2016, but as you know, the ships keep getting bigger, and the port is as busy as ever with a variety of commerce,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Nick LoRusso. A design agreement is expected to be signed this spring, which would allow construction to start in 2027, LoRusso said.
Those who do business at the port will see additional improvements in customer service in 2024 as well, as the Port Authority rolls out an AI-powered chatbot to provide customized 24/7 assistance. Credit card transactions are come to the port’s Truck Service Center.
Furthering the Port Authority’s sustainability goals, four DC fast chargers are expected to be available this year, enabling electric trucks serving the port to get a quick jolt. The initiative dovetails with the Port Authority’s wider sustainability priorities, including incentives toward the use of cleaner trucks, ships, and cargo handling equipment, en route to the agency’s overall goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Cargo volume is expected to continue to grow in 2024, as bloated warehouses empty and retailers return to a regular restocking rhythm. Globally however, the year is already presenting new challenges at two critical shipping passages.
“If you do anything, pray for rain in Panama,” Rooney said, alluding to drought conditions at the Panama Canal. “But probably more important than praying for rain in Panama is praying for peace in the Middle East.”
Outside the Suez Canal, the ongoing attacks on container ships in the Red Sea hit home for Rooney, a former merchant marine.
“We have commercial ships that are operated by civilian mariners around the world that are now being attacked for just doing their job, trying to help move goods that we and everyone around the world depend on every single day,” she said.
After getting through the pandemic together, the regional supply chain is better prepared to handle these early challenges of 2024, Rooney said.
“There was a little bit of breathing room (in 2023) that I think allowed everybody – our terminal operators, the trucking companies, and others – the opportunity to continue to build out capacity, build out relationships,” Rooney said. “The confidence that our customers collectively have in the business and service we provide here is very, very positive.”