By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- The agency that oversees the Port of Boston wants to dredge Boston Harbor, clearing the way for a new class of larger ships to dock at a cruise port, container terminal and fuel stations by the Chelsea Creek.
The dredging plan will be an essential step to keep the Conley Terminal in business in South Boston where it employs hundreds of dockworkers and supports other associated businesses, said Rep. Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat.
"We're going to see larger ships coming up the coast. If we don't prepare for those ships here in Boston then we're likely to lose most of our cargo that comes in, to New York," Collins told the News Service. "Goods will be more expensive and we'll lose a ton of business in Massachusetts, particularly on our docks."
The House included $65 million for the dredging work in a transportation bond bill approved unanimously late Wednesday night. It's about a quarter of the project's cost. The bill also includes another provision laying the groundwork for a new haul road into the Conley Terminal.
Increasing the depth of the inner harbor from 40 feet to 47 feet at low tide and making the depth of the outer harbor at least 51 feet would cost $300 million, said Massachusetts Port Authority spokesman Matt Brelis. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would pay $170 million, and Massport and the state would evenly split the remaining $130 million.
MassPort CEO Tom Glynn wrote in a recent Commonwealth Magazine column that the Army Corps of Engineers found the project "technically sound, environmentally and socially acceptable, and economically justified," and said it would open access to the fuel terminals in Chelsea Creek as well as the Cruiseport. Glynn wrote that the container terminal has a depth of 45 feet.
A project for new, larger locks in the Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans will allow shipping companies to make more use of ships larger than the "Panamax" size that is just small enough to fit through the modern-day canal. The so-called post-Panamax ships draw 50 feet of water when fully loaded, a draft that is deeper than what Massport wants to dredge in the harbor. Brelis said the harbor has nine-foot tides allowing ships to enter and exit with the tides, and he said the berth at the Conley Terminal would be dredged to 50 feet at low tide.
The outer-harbor would need to be deeper because ocean swells cause fluctuations in the amount of water, Brelis said.
The new locks on the Panama Canal had been scheduled to open in 2014, according to a 2011 paper by the firm Jones Lang LaSalle. More recent news accounts reported the canal work was running over budget and behind schedule.
The new locks will be wider, deeper and longer, allowing for ship lengths to go from 985 feet to 1,200 feet, widths to go from 106 feet to 160 feet, and the draft to go from 39.5 feet to 50 feet. The new post-Panamax container ships will be able to hold the equivalent of 12,000 20-foot containers, up from 4,400 such containers on the Panamax ships.
"The shipping industry also needs to know upfront whether they're going to be able to do business here in Boston," said Collins.
The East Coast has four ports that can handle the largest of the ships that will be able to fit through the new canal, fully loaded, said Aaron Ellis of the American Association of Port Authorities, who noted the ships draw significantly more water when fully loaded than when empty.
The East Coast ports are Halifax, Nova Scotia; New York/New Jersey; Baltimore; and Norfolk, Va. Ellis said a number of ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast are working toward being able to handle the post-Panamax ships and several other ports on the West Coast have naturally deep harbors and are already handling the largest ships.
Bond bills authorize, rather than mandate, state spending, leaving it to governors to determine whether to go forward with individual projects. Collins said the harbor dredging is "in line" with the Patrick administration's agenda, and said MassPort is "very strongly in support of this."
"An investment of $20 million a year for three years or so for the state and Massport seems like a small price to pay for preserving a part of our heritage and blue collar jobs," Glynn wrote.
Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, said despite the complication of a large stone hurricane barrier protecting New Bedford Harbor, he would be interested in making it compatible with post-Supermax ships as well. New Bedford is currently constructing a harbor terminal that will be large and strong enough to handle off-shore wind turbine equipment.
"The hurricane barrier is something that would have to be looked at as well. If we want to really compete in this area of the big ships, we would have to take a second look at the hurricane barrier opening," Cabral said. He said, "I think other communities such as New Bedford should take a look at it."
Cabral said money to repair State Pier in New Bedford "might be" included in the environmental bond bill, separate legislation.
The Boston Harbor dredging funding was added in the House Ways and Means version of the bill. The Senate has yet to take up the legislation.
In addition to the harbor-deepening project, the port authority has plans to create a truck route from the Conley Terminal to Summer Street, bypassing East First Street in South Boston.
The project will "dramatically" cut truck emissions on East First Street in South Boston and the new haul road will be separated by a buffer zone from residences, Collins said.
"It's been in the works for quite some time. And that piece that's in the bill allows those dots to be connected," Collins said.
The bond bill allows Massport to acquire land that previously housed an MBTA power station, which was decommissioned and demolished in 1982, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. He said the MBTA now receives its power from the NSTAR utility company.
Collins said aside from the state agencies that own land along the haul road route, part of the route is owned by the power company Exelon. He said Exelon has been in negotiations on providing the land for a long time, and he said he hopes construction will be able to start this year.
"I think we should be proud of the fact that we have a working port," said Collins.