East Coast port expansions: more skepticism about costs and about job creation

From the AJC’s Ports to spend big for global bounty:

No one in Washington or anywhere else plays referee to determine which ports should handle the ever-larger cargo ships expected to traverse the Panama Canal en route to the East Coast by 2015.

“We don’t need a half-dozen deep-water ports on the Eastern seaboard. We just need a couple to deal with the larger ships coming on line,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington.

“Spending all this money is clearly in the ports’ and shippers’ interests, but it’s not in the taxpayers’ interest.”

Savannah and Charleston, for example, compete for the same ships and plan to spend almost $4 billion upgrading harbors, docks and terminals. South Carolina politicians, who’ve plowed billions of dollars into the port of Charleston, vow to stop Savannah from deepening its river and harbor.

Savannah and Charleston of course are just two of the ports on the East Coast pushing for significant upgrades, and the full cost rises dramatically when all the East Coast ports’ plans are considered:

The port association reports that the $46 billion will pay for new or rebuilt piers, wharves, warehouses, roads, cranes and dredging to maintain channels and berths. Private terminal operators will cover two-thirds of the costs. More than $18 billion will be borne by local, state and federal taxpayers.

There’s also a fascinating analysis now available at Port Strategy, a publication for port executives: Eggs in one basket

The piece focuses largely on transshipment — i.e., the transferring of containers from larger vessels to smaller ones after they have left the Panama Canal but before their final destinations in the U.S.

From the article:

Dredging and transhipment are bumping heads in the heady rush along the East Coast to capitalise on the supposed bounty of the Panama Canal after 2014. Ports are clamouring and competing for 14.6 and 15.2 metres main channel drafts for 13,000 teu vessels while the canal is talking of transhipment, probably in the 6,000-8,000 teu range.

One indication is the construction of the new terminal at Colon (PCCP), at the Atlantic end of the canal, with a capacity of 2m teu a year. John Carver, of Jones Lang LaSalle, the development advisor, says: “Too many seaports do not currently, and may never, have the harbour depth required to take advantage of the trend towards post and super-post panamax vessels.” He sees the terminal as “further enhancing Panama’s already strategic designation as one of the world’s primary global transshipment hubs.”

The piece directly contrasts the additional transshipment potential with all the efforts to deepen harbors to prepare for the bigger ships.

The article also mentions the added pressure on unions and concludes with this about job creation:

The ports are now a much more important source of revenue and jobs than 15 years ago and a backlash will swiftly develop, from public and politicians, should union militancy drive traffic away.

The union will probably have to continue to compromise, accepting a loss of jobs while insisting that only its members run certain operations. As Baltimore and Bayonne have shown, terminal gates will be automated, optical character reading will be the norm and yard stacking will become increasingly remote controlled.