Cargo conundrum: Port of NY/NJ is capable of handling huge increase in volume — but is New Jersey?

Port’s Rooney: Shipping ecosystem — from terminals to warehouses to truckers — must adjust processes to handle coming surge in container cargo

In the early morning hours of March 26, just minutes after a cargo ship leaving the Port of Baltimore slammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, knocking down the bridge and halting traffic in and out of the port, Beth Rooney’s phone started blowing up.

Rooney, the port director at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, was one of the few people who could truly understand the gravity of the situation. She quickly let her counterparts in Baltimore know two things:

  • Whether it’s boats, equipment, manpower or thought leaders, the Port of New York/New Jersey was ready to be on the scene that morning;
  • Send all your cargo ships our way; the Port of NY/NJ can handle the extra volume.

Rooney’s confidence in the Port of NY/NJ stemmed from two reasons: The volume at the Port of Baltimore is much smaller (it does in a year what NY/NJ does in six weeks) and the Port of NY/NJ was able to easily handle the surge in imports it got during the pandemic.

In 2022, when panic shipping led to a 20% increase in traffic, the Port of NY/NJ handled approximately 9 million TEUs (what the standard 20x8x8 shipping container is called), a number the port was not intending to reach until 2030, she said.

Workers wanted

Beth Rooney, the port director at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, acknowledged that the port is quickly losing workers to retirement at a time it needs to add workers to handle increased volume.

Rooney said the port is actively working with community colleges, vo-techs, trade schools, even K-12 schools to bring awareness to career opportunities at the port, starting with internships, apprenticeships and summer work. She said she’s confident of the pull of the industry.

“I think it’s contagious once you get into it,” she said. “It’s a really exciting business to be in.”

Rooney said she’s confident the port has the capacity to meet all of its future container goals — including accepting 20-25 million TEUs by 2050.

She’s just not sure if the rest of the shipping ecosystem will be able to keep up.

Rooney, speaking Wednesday at the New Jersey International Trade Awards event, offered a warning for a state that dubs itself the champion of commercial commerce: Unless the shipping ecosystem (which includes the ports, the trucks, the warehouses and more) adjusts its work schedule — it currently has just one shift, five days a week — the Port of NY/NJ will not be able to handle the additional volume that’s coming.

“The Port Authority completed a port master plan in June of 2019 — and our expectation is that we’re going to double, if not triple our container volume between now and 2050, so we need to have more capacity,” she said.

“Furthermore, and more importantly, the capacity that we have has to be used more efficiently.”

The terminals, which run from 6 a.m. to midafternoon, will need to add more hours to handle the increased volume that’s coming. But that can’t happen unless the ecosystem outside the port is ready to handle it: Warehouses have to be open longer (and there needs to be more of them) and trucks have to be available for more hours, she said.

Rooney said she realizes the request is easier made than carried out.

Small shippers wanted

Beth Rooney, the port director at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, said many think the port only handles the cargo content of huge companies: the Walmarts, Home Depots and Toyotas of the world. Quite the opposite is true, she said.

The port has more than 100,000 companies that move cargo, but 90,000 of them are doing less than 1,000 containers a year, she said. And 70% of that 90,000 is doing less than 500.

“We know when you’re starting out in the aviation world, because you don’t have enough volume to fill a container or even to make it worthwhile to have a consolidated container with other shippers,” she said. “But, we’ve had great success working with exporters until ocean transportation does make sense. So, whether you’re a small shipper or a giant shipper, there’s a place for you at the Port of New York and New Jersey.”

Local municipal rules often dictate hours. Schedules of mass transit often dictate worker availability.

Then, there’s this: Finding space for new warehouses — and workers to employ in them — has been a problem in the region for years.

The Port of NY/NJ, Rooney said, is being proactive on the issues.

“We’re working from the warehouse and distribution center back towards the port to try to right-size the ecosystem,” she said. “And, because we’ve had a sense as to what’s going to happen in 2030 and beyond — that flash into the future we got during the pandemic — we’re focused on that now, because we know what’s coming.

“We can’t handle a lot more than 9 million TEUs a year without the rest of the ecosystem changing. So, we’re focusing on that right now.”

The good news: While there are obstacles, there is not opposition.

Ten years ago, the Port of NY/NJ created the Council on Port Performance, where leadership from the terminals to the ocean carriers, labor, warehousing and distribution centers, brokers and shippers, the Coast Guard, customs and border protection come together to discuss issues and concerns.

It’s the only such group in the country. And it showed its value during the pandemic.

“I can say, with no doubt whatsoever, that we were able to handle the volume of the pandemic unlike any other port in the United States because we have that collaborative and forward-looking forum,” Rooney said. “We were looking at what was coming down the pike during the pandemic and we were addressing it before it became a problem.”

By the numbers

Facts and figures around the Port of New York/New Jersey:

  • 7.8 million: The number of containers the Port of NY/NJ handled in 2023;
  • 47 million: The number of consumers within a four-hour ride of the Port of NY/NJ;
  • 100 million: The number of consumers more than 250 miles away that get products from the Port of NY/NJ;
  • Zero: The chance a container ship could take out the George Washington Bridge (large cargo container ships don’t travel on the Hudson).

That camaraderie is a reason Port of NY/NJ already handles more volume than the combination of the next two highest ports, Rooney said.

And that spirit gives Rooney hopes for finding a solution to the volume issues that are coming in the next two decades.

“This issue is not unique to New York/New Jersey, but, I will tell you, New York/New Jersey is the only one that’s working on trying to fix the ecosystem,” she said. “We’re the only ones that have acknowledged that it’s beyond the port’s capability alone.

“We can have all of the capacity in the world to handle the cargo coming in, but if the rest of the ecosystem doesn’t address the problems — and those are not conversations that port authorities traditionally get into — we will not be able to do so.”

That would be a big loss for the state, Rooney said.

“I fully recognize the value that the port provides to the local and regional economy, the 700,000 jobs that are dependent upon the port,” she said. “All of that is going to go by the wayside if we don’t fix what’s happening outside of the port.”