Barges are poised for a comeback. Not that they ever left New York-the big flat vessels travel up and down New York waterways filled with petroleum, stone, rocks, sand, scrap and chemicals. Almost all of the home heating oil used on the East Coast comes through New York Harbor on barges.
And yet barges used to carry much more -- in fact, everything loaded on or off of ships from around the world. The great Erie Canal was built in 1817 for barges. But by the middle of the 20th century, bridges and tunnels and the Interstate highway system made transport of goods speedier and easier by trucks. Even garbage, once carried by scows (which are similar to barges), started being transported by trucks. Today barges carry just six percent of the nation's cargo.
With traffic-clogged highways and high fuel prices, far-sighted planners in New York are looking to barges once again.
According to a plan passed by the City Council in July, the city's trash will once again be hauled away by barge. Officials also hope that container ships will unload cargo onto barges as well.
Until the mid-1970s, New York was a commercial harbor. "If you saw a pleasure boat, they were lost," says Eric Johansson, director of the Maritime Industry Museum in the Bronx. But then exactly half a century ago, a new kind of ship was created, container ships, which carry their cargo in truck-size containers that can be easily transferred to the back of a truck or attached to a locomotive. The container ships were huge and needed massive amounts of space to unload. This is what did in most of the commercial waterfront business in the city. In the city today, cargo unloads only in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Most of the container ships go to New Jersey ports. Now real estate developers have jumped into the old working waterfront to put up commercial and residential buildings.
Johansson, a former tugboat captain, bemoans the transformation. He wants to see more, not less, commercial traffic. And the way to do this, he thinks, is by bringing back barges. "Anything moved by water is more cost efficient than on the road. You gain a little speed with trucking, but when fuel costs go up, it won't be efficient. It's always cheaper to go by water. You don't have to build a road. You've got the waterway sitting there naturally."
Even a small, inland barge can carry 60 containers. That would make 60 tractor-trailer truckloads. "If you could take 60 18-wheelers off the road with one barge, why wouldn't you want to do that?" says Tom Wakeman of the Port Authority. Larger barges can carry 200 or more containers.
The idea of using barges for containers is not just a dream. For three years, there was a federally-funded pilot program to move containers from the giant ships in New York Harbor to Albany, via barges.
The experiment failed. Different experts give different reasons why â€“ it wasn’t given enough time, there weren’t enough trips back and forth, there wasn’t enough marketing, not enough effort to sell the shippers on the idea, too many marinas blocking the barges along the waterway into Albany, etc. Tom Hannan, who is in charge of the barge program for the Port Authority, believes the barge program might simply have been ahead of its time. The shippers weren't ready to embrace it because they didn't see a cost or time savings. As fuel costs grow and the ports and highways become more congested with ever-greater imports, that will change, and the economical barges will show their virtues.
Today the Port Authority is planning another pilot program, this time to transport containers by barge to Bridgeport. Since Bridgeport is along the truck-congested I95 highway corridor, shippers might be more inclined to use the barge service. They are also looking at services to Camden and Providence.
Hannan of the Port Authority is optimistic. The Albany program "was an incredibly complicated process, but we learned a lot,” he says. “We're in a position to do much better.”
In a few years, whether or not the container/barge program takes off, barges will be more numerous, because they are slated to start collecting and hauling off the 12,000 tons of trash city residents produce each year. Garbage trucks will load their trash onto barges at transfer stations along the rivers. The capacious but unglamorous vessels will then carry the unglamorous waste off to landfills in other states. That will ease traffic, odors and road wear, saving 3.5 million miles of driving a year.
Today, most of the garbage goes to transfer stations in poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens for compaction. Then it is trucked out to landfills. The new method is meant to be more equitable. One of the transfer stations will be on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.
Though barge proponents say that water transport is economical, the cost for transporting the city's trash will increase from $77 to $107 per ton. Officials say that in the long run, the costs will be lower, but implementation will be more costly than the current method.
It took years of wrangling, but the City Council passed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's trash plan in July with a vote of 44 to 5. It should be implemented by 2009, according to Bloomberg.
Soon, the big unassuming worker bees of the rivers are likely once again become a major force in moving items to and from New York.