Date: Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal
Where is all the action this holiday season? At the area’s shipping ports. They are bustling. They are bananas. They are bursting with imports and record truck traffic rumbling through to haul it away.
“It’s busy today!” exclaimed Deputy Port Director Bethann Rooney, surveying the system’s Port Newark Container Terminal one recent morning. “You can tell by the number of trucks moving around, the number of ships in at one time.”
This season has produced a record flow of incoming cargo at the Port of New York and New Jersey—driven in part by the insatiable demand for merchandise from people stuck at home during the pandemic.
In early fall, in preparation for the holidays, 55,000 shipping containers of furniture and bedding were unloaded at the port—a 32% increase from 2019. Coffee-maker shipments jumped 163% to 1,050 containers—that is about three million 12-cup machines.
“And washing machines, year-over-year, are up 2,600%,” said Ms. Rooney, who learned to drive huge ships while attending SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx and joined the Port Authority in 1993.
The season’s record volumes also reflect warehouse operators and retailers stockpiling goods to prepare for the possibility of another global-manufacturing shutdown, said Ms. Rooney.
There is more than a billion square feet of private warehousing and distribution space in New Jersey that accept containers of merchandise from the port for redistribution to retailers such as Walmart and Amazon.com. But now these warehouses are full, and the logistics companies that run them are renting nearby parking lots to store the stockpiled inventory.
All told, more than 430,000 containers arrived at the port in September and October, 18% more than in 2019, and a record for the period.
That’s a lot of stuff! To put it in fruit terms—which is always best—430,000 40-foot containers would hold more than 20 billion bunches of bananas.
Indeed, our port, which spreads across five locations in New Jersey, Staten Island and Brooklyn, is the largest on the East Coast and third largest in the U.S.
It also is where container shipping was invented, in 1956, when a New Jersey trucking company owner loaded 58 containers directly from his vehicles onto a converted oil tanker bound for Houston.
“We’re the first and the greatest!” Ms. Rooney said.
I can’t say if it is the greatest, but the port is really quite spectacular.
Touring the Port Newark terminal, which runs alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, is like navigating a giant game of Tetris, only more predictable. Each of the 40,000 brightly colored containers typically on-hand is scanned, scheduled and tracked by central computer systems as it moves off the ship and through the terminal on a series of 18-story-tall cranes, top loaders and long-legged, sideways-moving straddle carriers.
While about 17% of imports leave on trains stretching more than 2 miles long, most head out on trucks. The first week in December, for example, saw 75,100 trips in and out of the port.
Trucks stop at a toll-booth-like structure where a series of sensors and cameras scans and inspects them. The driver speaks to a clerk located in a remote office before receiving marching orders dictated by algorithm.
Many of the 15,000 truckers licensed to do business with the port make three to four trips a day between the terminal and surrounding warehouses. But with containers piling up because of the warehouse shortage, it is hard to move them efficiently, and wait times have lengthened. Now, some truckers are down to just one to two trips a day.
The ships themselves, which typically arrive monthly or weekly from Asia, Europe and South America, are so big it doesn’t even make sense. The typical carrier holds about 5,000 standard containers and is roughly 20 stories tall and 3.5 football fields long.
“And it floats!” Ms. Rooney said.
Not every ship is the size of an iceberg. We stopped to gawk at the Oleander, which travels weekly between New Jersey and Bermuda carrying about 450 half-size containers. It is the only container vessel running between the U.S. and the tiny country. “The island of Bermuda is 100% dependent on that ship,” Ms. Rooney said.
And not everything arrives in a container. We drove past mountains of rock salt imported from South America, piles of Belgian brick on its way to landscaping firms and silos of nut and vegetable oil headed for area cookie and cracker factories.
The 460-foot Viking Odessa, berthed at the north end of the complex, turned out to be a floating parking garage that can transport thousands of vehicles—in this case, it was exporting used vehicles to Haiti.
When cars are imported, workers with the International Longshoremen’s Association move the vehicles off the ship. They ride up in a van together and drive the new cars down the ramps, one by one. A worker might make 20 to 30 trips a day.
The vehicles are parked in a mile-long lot where they are accessorized by auto processors with features such as spoilers before distribution to dealerships.
Toward the end of the tour, I expressed amazement that this operation not only supplies much of the merchandise purchased by consumers in the Northeast and beyond, but is replicated in ports around the globe, keeping us neck-deep in mattresses and microwave ovens.
“And it started here in New York and New Jersey,” Ms. Rooney added. “Did you hear me? It started here in New York and New Jersey!”