Goods have continued to move through the port, helping supply the region and state with food and other essentials needed to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. A panel of experts discussed how this is being accomplished during the Annual Port and Maritime Update at the NJTPA Freight Initiatives Committee meeting on June 15.
Committee Chair Charles Kenny, a Middlesex County Freeholder, welcomed and introduced the three panelists, representing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York Shipping Association and New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).
Bethann Rooney, Deputy Director of the Port Authority’s Port Department, said container volumes at the port declined 3 to 4 percent through the end of April. While significant, she said that is much less than the 30 percent decline some expected. However, she noted other Port Authority facilities had more drastic losses: 90 percent drops in airport travelers and PATH ridership, and a 60 to 70 percent decline in bridge and tunnel traffic.
She said the port remains an attractive destination because it serves a vast multistate region, with up to 45 million people. The volume also reflects the port’s increasingly diversified partners. While China remains the top trading partner, many counties are now shipping to the port through the Suez Canal. “That has helped us in many regards weather the storm,” Rooney said.
She said the crisis has presented many challenges, including keeping workers safe and communicating with states and businesses to ensure that warehouse closures do not leave goods stranded at the port.
As the port and economy rebound, Rooney said the Port Authority intends to continue the investments outlined in the Port Master Plan, including improving express rail, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from operations and undertaking major projects such as upgrading the entrance and exit at the port’s north side.
While Rooney focused on port operations, John Nardi, President of the New York Shipping Association, spoke about the effects the pandemic has had on the workforce. He said the Council on Port Performance, composed of public and private port stakeholders, increased the frequency of its meetings from quarterly to bi-weekly in March and shifted its focus from workforce development and rail network optimization to more immediate crisis-related concerns.
Labor issues were particularly challenging, he said. The port was deemed essential and operations continued, but workers had to be protected from the virus. The New York Shipping Association joined with the International Longshoreman’s Association to create joint guidance for workers and operators. Nardi said “no expense was spared” in providing workers with personal protective equipment and implementing other safeguards. Interactions between workers and truckers were minimized and staffing of equipment was modified. Despite the precautions, 61 workers were afflicted and many more were required to quarantine due to potential exposure.
In addition, up to 800 of the 3,500 workers at the port were unable to work due to the drop in shipping volumes, he said. The New York Shipping Association is working closely with the State of New Jersey, the Port Authority and industry groups on economic recovery efforts. “It’s been a great working relationship, the communication is fantastic, we just need the freight to come back,” Nardi said.
The meeting also featured Genevieve Clifton, Manager of the Offices of Maritime Resources, Freight Planning and Grants Management at NJDOT, who spoke about the prospects for expanding marine highway operations in the state — particularly at Raritan Business Center in Woodbridge.
She said the current crisis has underlined the need for improving logistics redundancy, such as through marine highways, and Raritan Business Center offers a prime opportunity for this.
“Port Raritan is at the confluence of rail, transportation, water and highway in a way that just not many sites are in our area,” she said, adding it has access to the New Jersey Turnpike, shortline rail service and a wharf on the Raritan River being used to transport construction materials.
The federal Maritime Administration (MARAD) has called for a marine highway, M-95, along the Atlantic Coast, and this project would support that. She said NJDOT will seek MARAD support for the Raritan Center project.
Potential services from the site could include barges carrying “roll-on, roll-off” truck trailers delivered to New York City and surrounding areas. This kind of operation would bypass crowded highways, offering savings of up to 20 percent to shippers and reducing congestion, crashes and environmental impacts of truck traffic. She said the project is an example of “what government does best.”
“We’re facilitating public and private partnership for the benefit of our region,” she said.
The slides from the three presentations can be viewed here.