Port officials in New York unveiled a $733 million plan yesterday to dredge the city's shipping channels, a 5-foot deepening project that could cut into Baltimore's hopes of becoming an East Coast megaport.
The project, to be completed by 2004, will deepen the approach channels at the Port of New York and New Jersey to 45 feet.
Whether that will be enough to persuade shipping giants Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. to choose New York over Baltimore as their new East Coast hub is uncertain -- the companies have asked for a 50-foot depth, which the port of Baltimore already can provide.
Yet, as the two shipping companies move close to picking a location for their new port, the news out of New York was seen as at least a modest blow to Baltimore's bid.
A 40-foot-deep New York harbor is generally considered inadequate for the massive vessels that Maersk and Sea-Land want to sail. But the 45-foot channels could give New York an edge.
"If they go to 45 feet, they'll be better off," said Capt. Michael Watson, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots. "But the port of Baltimore is going to have at least a 5-foot advantage over them, and we have it now."
New York's dredging project, a 9 1/2-mile cut that will require blasting through bedrock in some places, will be financed with $550 million from the federal government. Vice President Al Gore visited New York harbor yesterday to announce the federal government's commitment.
In Baltimore, political leaders have fought for two years to get $83 million to dredge 47 miles from the northern Chesapeake Bay, through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal to the Delaware Bay.
Officials with Maersk and Sea-Land, who are expected to announce their plans in several weeks, would not say how New York's deepening project might affect their search. But Maersk spokesman Tom Boyd said channel depth is just one of many details that the companies are exploring.
While its depth has long been considered a primary weakness of New York's port, the two shipping lines also have haggled over lease rates there. Maersk and Sea-Land have paid the same rent for New York dock space since the 1970s, but their leases will expire next year. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is reportedly seeking much higher rent for the next 25 years.
The port of Baltimore also offers rail and highway access to inland states that is superior to other East Coast ports.
The Maryland Port Administration is promising Maersk and Sea-Land space at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, where it would build new cargo cranes, shore up and deepen the piers and possibly construct a new rail bridge. State officials will not discuss the cost of the proposal, but it is expected to be several hundred million dollars.
Still, Baltimore's bid to become an East Coast container cargo hub always has been considered a long shot. New York harbor is in the center of the country's largest consumer market and is closer and more convenient than Baltimore to the open ocean.
U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who worked on the dredging project and attended the announcement with Gore yesterday, called the dredging announcement nothing short of the New York port's "renaissance."
"Last year, an editorial remarked that the Port of New York and New Jersey's days as the epicenter of maritime trade on the Eastern Seaboard may be numbered," Menendez said. "They were wrong."
The third city under consideration by Maersk and Sea-Land -- Halifax, Nova Scotia -- could benefit from New York's dredging, observers speculated yesterday. While Halifax has a natural 60-foot draft, it is generally considered too far from American markets to serve them by truck or train.
With New York's greater depth, the shipping lines could use Halifax to lighten the vessels' loads so they can fit into New York harbor.
Ships usually need at least two feet of clearance between the hull and the channel bottom -- more if the bottom, as is New York's, is rocky and apt to damage or breach a grounded ship.
That means that Baltimore, with a 50-foot draft and silty bottom, can accommodate ships sailing about 48 feet deep. New York could handle ships sailing about 42 feet deep once its dredging project is finished.
Commercial vessels rarely sail at their maximum structural depth on the East Coast because they are rarely full, and most commercial vessels are not designed to sail deeper than 39 1/2 feet -- the depth of the Panama Canal.
But Maersk and Sea-Land are adding ships to their fleets designed to sail 47 feet deep or more, and they want a new facility that can accommodate them for the next 25 years.
"In order for those vessels to be handled properly, and maximize the capacity of the vessel, we need 50 feet," said Phil Connors, an executive vice president at Maersk involved with the negotiations.
Bloomberg News contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/14/99