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New York port: in plain sight, but off the radar

New York port: in plain sight, but off the radar
New York is a city where its port played a key role in its development, but today like so many other ports suffers from political and public indifference.

Last week New York Maritime (NYMAR) hosted “A SWOT analysis of the Port of New York”, a presentation by Roland Lewis, who heads up the Waterfront Alliance, a very influential action group. For example, the Waterfront Alliance was a leading proponent of now implemented plans for a city-wide ferry system to link inaccessible neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.

SWOT, a framework for analyzing corporate strategies, stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The many positives going for the port, the “S” and “O”, include the natural harbour, the enormous local marketplace - one tagline from the evening was “the port made the city”, and available supply of skilled labour, and professionals such as the lawyers and financiers who make up the NYMAR membership.

In the “W” section Lewis described weaknesses that include very outdated and overworked infrastructure not just the roads but also a 1950’s era administrative framework, but he underscored the primary shortcoming- a port that’s invisible, characterized by “…public and political indifference…” as the biggest problem. He noted that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the port, also handles airports, bridges and real estate, with the maritime assets comprising a small fraction of a gargantuan total balance sheet and revenue base.

The port features a vast array of bulk shipping terminals, notably for imports of crude oil - supplemented by a few Jones Act shipments - and extensive inbound movements (both imported and domestic) of refined petroleum products and chemicals. But, as noted by Lewis, and later by NYMAR Chairman Clay Maitland, the local Port Authority has little interest in bulk cargo flows because they are routed through privately owned terminals.

Ironically, liner shipping, of interest to the local Port Authority because of its role as a lessor of dockside space to container terminal operators, still struggles to get the attention of politicians because of the Port Authority’s other activities- bridges, airports, and commercial real estate. Thus, shipping and the port, even the higher valued liner cargoes, are largely invisible.

After offering his own version of horror stories - one New York City official with responsibility for certain activities near the waterfront who was unaware of the shipping industry - Lewis offered his prescription- for business people to constantly get in front of politicians and elected officials and stress the importance of the maritime industry, emphasiaing the jobs created and dollars added to local economies. Short sea shipping was listed among the “O” bullet points - Opportunities- with the speaker acknowledging that this nut has not been cracked yet”.

One symptom of the invisibility of ports was revealed by the American Association of Port Authorities, where a survey of member ports revealed a desire to spend $155bn during 2016- 2020. When contrasted with a $25bn “best case” view on investment by the US Federal (national level) government, the need to reach out to the private sector is clear.