bayonne bridge as seen from staten island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A strangling bridge is being modernized just in time.
But neither Ammann nor his contemporaries anticipated the future of commerce. In particular, they didn’t foresee the “containerization” revolution, in which ships stacked high with containers would ply the ports of the world. And therein lies the problem with the Bayonne Bridge: it’s too low. At high tide, its roadway sits a mere 151 feet above the water. Already, some of the larger container vessels—which rise 175 feet or more above the waterline—cannot clear it and must wait until low tide, fold down their antenna masts, or take on ballast to pass beneath the structure. Even those measures sometimes fail. In 2009, the NYK Nebula tried to enter Newark Bay, but its keel-to-mast height of 197 feet held it back. The ship had to set off for the Port of Norfolk to reconfigure its load, running up a bill of tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary expense, not to mention the additional cost of delaying the delivery of its goods.
The Nebula incident was just a taste of things to come. Already, the world’s largest container vessels can’t pass beneath the Bayonne Bridge under any conditions. And a little over a year from now, in August 2014, the problem will become much worse. That’s when a new set of locks will be completed in the Panama Canal, whose channel will become dramatically deeper and wider. The capacity of container ships is measured in TEUs (20-foot-equivalent units), each of which represents the size of a standard container—20 feet long and eight feet wide. At the moment, the canal’s dimensions limit ships to 5,000 TEUs, but the new locks will permit ships as large as 13,000 TEUs to move from the Pacific to the Atlantic without making a long slog around the southern tip of Chile. Enormous container ships from China and other Asian countries will enjoy ready access to the eastern seaboard of the United States.
But not to New York and New Jersey. Thanks to the Bayonne Bridge, the harbor there will lose out to rivals like Norfolk, Halifax, Baltimore, and Savannah. And if goods destined for the New York area can’t be moved here by ship, they will have to come by other means—trucks, presumably. Given that some 3,000 trucks are required to move the cargo held by a single 6,000-TEU vessel, the negative effect on regional traffic (and environmental emissions) would be considerable. Also at risk would be the 269,000 jobs that the port supports and the $36.1 billion in business income that it generates.