U.S. ports will gradually grow into becoming gateways

In order to handle these huge vessels, U.S. container terminals of the future must invest in varying degrees of automation depending upon the amount of volume that each vessel call is expected to generate at their facilities, said Larry Nye, vice president in charge of port planning at engineer firm Moffatt & Nichol.

Nye’s comments challenge conventional thinking of port planners who believe U.S. ports will gradually grow into becoming gateways for the newest generation of mega-ships. Although 18,000-TEU ships are already deployed in the Asia-Europe trade, where the distances are long and the weekly container volumes are high, it is generally assumed that 12,000-TEU vessels will be the workhorses in trans-Pacific services to the West Coast during the coming decade.

Similarly, when the Panama Canal expansion project is completed in early 2016, the canal will be capable of accommodating vessels with a capacity up to about 14,000 TEUs, but industry analysts believe the initial services will probably be with vessels of about 8,000-TEU capacity. That will be the case at least until the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey is raised to allow mega-ships to pass under it, and the South Atlantic ports are dredged deeper to accommodate larger vessels later in the decade.

However, in an interview this week, Nye said the per-slot economics and fuel savings inherent in the big ships are so compelling that carriers will continue to push the envelope until they are using the largest vessels that ports in each trade lane will be physically and operationally capable of handling.

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