Port's Shipping Business Quietly Taking Off

By Steve Urbon

It was just a few years ago that not a single freighter tied up to a New Bedford pier. Today, by comparison, it is almost a traffic jam. About 28 freighters, most of them offloading produce from northern Africa, are scheduled to dock in the harbor this year, and the future is looking bright.
Each freighter that arrives in port means employment for as many as 50 people and helps spread the word internationally that New Bedford is open for business, say port officials.
Cranes and booms lifting pallets and containers are a common sight today at North Terminal and State Pier, which has been pressed into service in a deal last year with Maritime Terminal Inc. The new arrangement allows Maritime the use of State Pier to handle larger vessels that have trouble navigating the drawbridge and North Terminal channel in heavy weather. In lieu of rent, for now, Maritime is making improvements to the facility.
Harbor Development Commission CEO Kristin Decas talks excitedly about much more to come, including an innovative roll-on, roll-off, rail shipping connection.
The reawakening of New Bedford Harbor as a shipping port happened almost under the radar. There were years of talk about intermodal shipping, rail sidings and dredging, and much of it may have seemed like wishful thinking. State, federal and Superfund money, meanwhile, was being invested in actually opening up the channel that had been silted for 40 years until it was unusable.
The Superfund cleanup of harbor PCBs included construction of a rail yard at North Terminal that is the foundation for eventual freight and commuter rail connections to New England, Canada and the entire continent.
Only recently, the harbor was moribund. Any freight ship that wanted to offload cargo had to pay particular attention to the tides and the troublesome shallowness of the channel. That often meant partial offloading somewhere else, to lessen the draft of the vessel and avoid grounding.
But a series of dredging projects, starting with State Pier in 2001 and continuing to this day, removed tens of thousands of cubic yards of sediment from the harbor, opening up the waterfront to ever larger vessels.
Businesses along the waterfront could have their individual sites dredged, too, for a contribution of 20 percent of the cost, Decas said.
Next: Rail sidings can be built to any number of waterfront businesses, completing the connection to the nation’s rail transit system.
The city is advertising that it is open for business, and Decas said the shipping world has taken notice. Decas herself has promoted the city as an example of a modern niche port through a group calling itself GO21, short for Growth Options in the 21st Century. It is a national organization dedicated to promoting rail shipping as a way to save money and the environment at the same time.
Decas said the city expects to develop a terminal for the direct offloading of rail cars from specially designed barges, which can immediately be sent into the nation’s rail system.
Soon to come, according to Decas, is the development of so-called short-sea shipping, intra-coastal shipping of goods along the Eastern seaboard that is more economic and environmentally friendly than highway shipping.
Decas said concerns that short-sea shipping will imperil the port activities of the fishing industry are unfounded. The two need entirely different facilities, she said.
“Fish piers will always be fish piers.”
Steve Urbon is senior correspondent of The Standard-Times.
March 02, 2010
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