Few holiday shoppers along Fordham Road in the Bronx or Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or Roosevelt Avenue in Queens probably take the time to contemplate the waterfront, much less imagine how connected they are to the ship captains, truck drivers, warehouse managers, and stock boys who make their living from the port of New York and New Jersey. But the bargains New Yorkers seek on the shopping streets of the city began fantastic voyages in factories far away.
Far from being the mere backdrop to nostalgic old movies, the port is not only alive, it recently crossed a number of new milestones.
In the summer, another 1,000 longshoreman were hired, the first time in more than three decades that the on-dock labor force grew. This is not for lack of work, given that globalization has been fueling tremendous growth in international trade for the last half-century. Instead, advances in technology such as the shift from break-bulk to containerization have made port commerce much less labor intensive: A handful of workers, one in a crane and a few working on-dock vehicles can do the work that hundreds did back in the 1950s. The port now employs more than 228,000 people region-wide, making it a close competitor to education and health care as a major employer in New York City.
This fall, the port announced a 14.3 percent increase in container volumes, those modular steel boxes that sit on a truck trailer and arrive stacked in piles of thousands aboard oceangoing cargo ships. While the increase in imports was more than 16 percent for the first half of the year, the increase in exports through the port nearly topped 10 percent. The value of goods moved through the port in the period was also impressive: at more than 42 billion dollars for six months, this amount surpasses the value of the tourism industry in New York City over an entire year. The port isn't resting on these laurels either. They are fast-tracking a number of dredging projects to ease the approach to the container terminals along the Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay.
Undoubtedly the greatest sea-change of 2003 was seen in the Port Authority's recent support of the cross-harbor freight tunnel. As reported in Crain's New York Business, Port Authority Executive Director Joe Seymour has decided that building the tunnel is critical to regional and national security. To a region that has added millions in population yet not created a new cross-harbor linkage in 40 years, it is increasingly obvious that more linkages across our region are critical if we are to continue to add to the competitive advantage in transportation that makes New York a great place to live, work, and yes, consume. The benefits of the tunnel would be many.
Ironically, there is no press release on the Port Authority Web site announcing this new willingness to embrace a massive public works project that they have staved off for more than 70 years. The agency's acceptance of the cross harbor freight tunnel, however mild, is in no small part due to the diligence and dedication of a small group within the city's Economic Development Corporation, who for years now have shepherded a cross-harbor freight study through the exploration of more than three dozen options to link New York and New Jersey across the water, including the tunnel. The draft environmental impact statement is expected in a matter of months.
Looking ahead, the city will need more than massive regional projects such as the freight tunnel; we need local infrastructure too. Another milestone passed quietly in November, when the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Operating Transit Authority cleared out all the buses from Pier 57 in Hudson River Park. With a "request for expressions of interest" now out on the streets, it is looking more and more like another waterfront transportation facility may be hacked up by golf clubs and squash rackets. With a big-box store headed for Erie Basin, the largest protected inlet within New York City, it looks more and more as if the city is turning a blind eye to freight movement just as New York State and the Port Authority are starting to catch on.
Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.