Vying for shippers’ attention like antsy students eager to answer a teacher’s question, the East Coast’s major ports are scrambling to position themselves for the scheduled 2015 completion of the Panama Canal expansion. And who can blame them.
As the $5 billion expansion will double the capacity of Teddy Roosevelt’s turn-of-the-20th-Century “big ditch,” making it more economical to ship more goods from Asia directly to East Coast markets, nearly every ports stands to get a “piece of the action.” And the more facilities available to accommodate New Panamax freighters, they reason, the bigger that piece may be.
But in their zeal to be ready for those mammoth vessels, several ports are must first wrestle with some complicated environmental obstacles.
The Port of Baltimore’s hopes of transforming a 3,300-acre shuttered steel mill on Sparrow’s Point into a new marine terminal complex hinge on its ability to adequately address on- and off-shore contamination at what’s been called the highly sensitive Chesapeake Bay watershed’s “ most complex environmental cleanup site,” at a cost that could exceed $70 million.
The Port is also keeping its fingers crossed that negotiations between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Carnival Cruise Lines over air pollution controls will help recapture at least some of the traffic that’s been lost to Miami.
And speaking of air quality, residents of Baltimore’s southwest neighborhoods have raised concerns about excess pollution that may result should CSX Transportation proceed with a $90 million intermodal facility, which will allow the carrier to double-stack those offloaded containers and avoid the existing narrow, congested tunnel through the city.
Similar concerns are behind a lawsuit that attempts to block the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s $1.3 billion plan to erect a replacement Bayonne Bridge with 64 feet of additional vertical clearance to so that New Panamax vessels can reach the area’s ports.
The plaintiffs contend that the Port Authority and U.S. Coast Guard filed to fully assess the project’s immediate and long-term health and environmental effects on surrounding neighborhoods. The Port Authority has claimed in past testimony that more efficient operations and reductions in older truck traffic would mitigate any air pollution issues.
The Port of Virginia, by contrast, appears to be having no problems readying for the New Panamax fleet. Work is well underway on the expansion of Craney Island in Hampton Roads harbor with dredged material, creating enough room to add two new berths and six cranes by 2019. (Further expansion could reach 10 berths and more than 20 cranes by 2033). Terminal and wharf expansions are also underway at Norfolk International Terminal and privately-operated APM Terminals.
The question, though, is how those new containers will get to their destinations.
Though Hampton Roads’ ports are rife with rail connections, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) wants to create a more direct truck route to the I-95/I-85 corridors with a new $1.4 billion, 55-mile tollway that would parallel existing stoplight-ridden U.S. Route 460. Though the project is also touted as a way to provide both a faster alternative for beach-bound tourists, plus a much-needed disaster evacuation route south of the James River, there’s little doubt that tolls from container-bearing trucks are expected to be the primary source of toll revenue.
VDOT is eager to get the four-year construction phase underway by next year, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has questioned the choice of route for the project, claiming that routes less disruptive to wetlands were available, and that Virginia has not been forthcoming with accurate information.
Despite assurances earlier this year that the Corps’ concerns would be satisfactorily addressed, VDOT’s tone has become less congenial of late, with an official questioning both the relevance and cost of the Corps’ requirement for additional environmental studies. Virginia plans to formally submit its wetland permit application next month.
What effect these issues will have on the respective ports’ New Panamax preparation plans remains to be seen. Despite the huge potential for new economic development, new jobs, and new everything else that will flow up from the widened Panama Canal, the ports and their states still have some work to do to protect the diverse forms of life—including people—already there.