The New Yorker recently published an article, and somewhat homage, to the Bayonne Bridge. This structure, which connects Staten Island, NY to Bayonne, NJ over the Kill van Kull strait, has undergone extensive construction to lift the bridge while leaving the supports intact – the previous platform has been removed, a new and much higher platform has been established, and the scenic erector set-like structure remains untouched.
Ian Frazier’s article in The New Yorker notes some reasons why these changes were necessary. He states that “New York was once the busiest port in the world, but for decades the Port Authority turned its attention away from the waterfront, to new highways and real estate like the World Trade Center. By the early two-thousands, the port had fallen to fifteenth busiest in the world and third in the country (after the West Coast ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles).” To be frank, as demand grows, vessels grow with it, and much of the world’s infrastructure is not yet equipped to handle these gargantuan mega-ships – including New York and New Jersey’s Bayonne Bridge.
Before construction to raise the bridge began, larger vessels were forced to execute elaborate maneuvers to ease their way beneath the low-hanging platform. Ships would need to take on ballast – water brought into a tank in order to control stability – to add weight to the aft where the superstructure or “house” (the tallest portion of the vessel) is located to force it down and ensure it will clear the bottom of the bridge.
A source within a vessel planning division notes that, “the air-gap, or distance from the water to the bottom of the bridge, depends on the tide. At low tide it was approximately 47.5 meters (156’). The maximum air-draft (portion of the vessel above the water) that a vessel could have to pass safely under the bridge was 46.63 meters (153’). This would allow for one meter of clearance from the top of the ship to the bottom of the bridge. The ship would have to time its passage under the bridge at low tide during the maximum air-gap.”
An example of this tight clearance can be seen here, as MSC Agadir moves beneath the Bayonne Bridge before the platform was raised.
The project to raise the bridge cost $1.6 billion, and lifted the road 64 feet — from 151 feet to 215 feet — within the confines of the bridge’s current arch.
The problem posed by the pre-construction Bayonne Bridge was not only with the low-hanging platform. The shallow waters of the Kill van Kull strait were another concern. A vessel moving through this narrow passage would need to consider the draft, the depth of a ship’s keel below the waterline. Although low-tide is an ideal time in regards to the highest point of the vessel, it is perilous when we consider the lowest point of the vessel. If the keel hits the bottom of the strait it could risk running-aground and becoming stuck or severely damaging the vessel and endangering the crew, the environment, and the goods aboard.
Frazier mentions that “fully loaded, the biggest container ships draw about fifty feet of water.” Before dredging, the strait had a “thirty-five-to-forty-five-foot minimum average in key areas of the harbor… Kill van Kull now resembles a canyon. Its depth has been increased to a minimum of about fifty-one feet; at high tide, it’s about six feet deeper.” The dredging project lasted about twelve years, and cost nearly $2.1 billion.
With the completion of the dredging project, and construction on the bridge, carriers no longer face dangers moving even their largest vessels through the strait. In September 2017, CMA CGM had the honor of debuting the largest ship to ever enter New York Harbor, and the biggest to ever call any port on the East Coast: CMA CGM Theodore. Frazier captures the significance of the moment in his article when he mentions that “as the ship was approaching the bridge, Captain Naples stepped out of the wheelhouse and stood on the bridge wing beside it. ‘The wheelhouse on that ship is at the same height where the old roadway used to be,’ he told me.”
Click here to check out a time-lapse video of the Bayonne Bridge construction process.
Now that construction of the Bayonne Bridge is nearing completion, we can turn our attention to other infrastructure changes taking place around the world. Many ports along the U.S. East Coast are undergoing, or have made plans for, their own dredging projects including: Miami, Savannah, Norfolk, and Charleston ports. With the growth of the Panama Canal, once these East Coast projects have been completed, the U.S. West Coast may no longer be able to boast Long Beach and Los Angeles as the largest ports of U.S. imports and exports. These expansions can prevent the debilitating effects of strikes, such as those faced by the industry in 2014. More cargo will be able to be diverted to the restructured ports on the USEC. The expanded ports will face new challenges, too, like ever-prevalent trucker shortages, but these challenges will be overcome just like the others. If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that nothing seems to stop the growth of the logistics industry.