The Philadelphia Port makeover will allow more cars, more containerized freight, and more cargo such as wood pulp and lumber to arrive on larger ships and create more jobs.
PHILADELPHIA – The Port of Philadelphia is getting its first major capital investment in four decades for terminals, wharves, and cargo cranes, with a $300 million cash infusion from the Wolf administration. The state is landlord and owner of 16 piers and terminals on the Delaware River.

Fixing ship berths, buying new cranes, updating and relocating warehouses, and doubling cargo-handling space is expected to create 2,000 waterfront jobs, and nearly 7,000 total jobs for truckers, rail workers, suppliers, and port-related businesses.

For the region, the improvements will position Philadelphia to attract new shippers that currently go to rival ports in New York and Baltimore.

The old cranes at Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, the port’s main container terminal, date from the late 1960s and ’70s, and can reach only 17 containers across, said Jeff Theobald, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority’s chief executive officer. The new “post-Panamax” cranes – the first two will arrive in October and two more next year – can reach 23 containers wide.

The upgrades include:

1. Packer Avenue Marine Terminal

A $188 million state investment is expected to nearly double cargo business, from 456,000 to 900,000 containers annually, through:
• Deepening berths from 42 to 45 feet, in line with the Delaware River’s main navigation channel, to accommodate larger ships.
• Installing four “post-Panamax” container cranes, the world’s largest.
• Strengthening and improving berth infrastructure.
• Demolishing warehouses on docks to increase acreage for cargo handling, and building new warehouses nearby.

2. Publicker lot

Another 40 acres will be added for handling container cargo.

3. Philadelphia Auto Port

A $93 million state investment at the Southport site at the Navy Yard will provide 155 additional acres for autos, increasing annual imports from the current 155,000 to 350,000. A former seaplane hangar will be converted into a second auto-processing center.

4. Tioga Marine Terminal

In Port Richmond

The port projects a 21 percent increase in “break bulk” cargo from a $12 million state investment that would improve warehouse capacity, add a mobile harbor crane, and fund improvements to allow cargo to be loaded to train cars in inclement weather.

“These are as big as the cranes at the New York harbor. We’ll be able to compete with anyone on the East Coast,” he said.

Gerard “Jerry” Sweeney, the port authority’s board chairman, said, “We didn’t have a lot of the tools to aggressively attract new business. Quite frankly, the port has been very fortunate to be able to hold on to the business it’s had and grow it incrementally.

“The governor saw a real opportunity to give the port, finally, the right tools so that we could become competitive and market the port to bring business in from other ports, and be in a position for a trans-Pacific line that never would have looked at Philadelphia before because we couldn’t handle it.”

Sweeney, who joined Theobald to talk about the port as an economic engine to drive jobs, said Philadelphia will “now be in the mix with New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk. We have great access to the Northeast markets by rail and highway, and a better labor force.”

Remaking the port and river

Philadelphia is already on some shippers’ radar. Containerized freight in 20- and 40-foot boxes was up 39.6 percent in the last 12 months, and shot up 85.9 percent in February compared with February 2016, said research firm Panjiva, which tracks commercial shipments worldwide.

The container increases, attributable to several new shipping services at Packer, pushed the Philadelphia port’s national ranking up to No. 12, just below Miami and ahead of New Orleans. The nation’s largest port for container handling is Los Angeles-Long Beach, in California.

Until the recent surge in container volumes, Philadelphia port ranked No. 16, Panjiva said.

Soon there will be another new shipping service. Hapag-Lloyd, Germany’s top container line, and four Asian carriers have formed a vessel-sharing alliance that will begin operations in April on 32 routes worldwide, deploying more than 240 ships and connecting 75 major ports, including Philadelphia.

The weekly service from Europe boasts “fast transit times, a comprehensive port coverage, and deployment of modern and most-efficient ships,” according to an announcement on carrier NYK Line’s website. The route will begin in Bremerhaven, Germany, with stops in Antwerp, Belgium; London Gateway; Norfolk; Philadelphia; New York; and Halifax before returning to Bremerhaven.

Called the Alliance, the partners are “K” Line, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), Yang Ming Marine Transport, and Hapag-Lloyd. All but Hapag-Lloyd will be new to Philadelphia.

“We are working on what may become the port’s largest customer,” said Tom Holt Jr., the Packer terminal operator.

With the 103-mile deepening of the Delaware River navigation channel nearly completed, and the Panama Canal expanded to handle 9,000 to 13,000 TEU vessels (20-foot equivalent unit, the standard size of international containers), some of those bigger ships are coming up the Delaware.

“The ships keep getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger,” Holt said. “We’re already handling 9,500 TEU ships for MSC [Mediterranean Shipping Co.]. We have only two cranes that effectively can work these big ships.”

With the cranes Packer already has, “we will have effectively six cranes that can work these larger vessels, which bring in more cargo, which creates more jobs,” Holt said. “It truly is a ripple effect, and that is the benefit of these port jobs, blue-collar jobs. The guys make their money here in the river, and they spend their money raising their families in the region.”

Boise Butler, president of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1291, whose members unload the ships, said the current cranes “are not long enough” when the megaships come in. “We have to work half the ship, then take the vessel out in the river and turn it around, so we can work the other half.

“I thank the governor over and over for the $300 million for improvements,” Butler said. “I’m hoping that, along with the state planning for expanding containers into the port, they keep their eyes on what’s going on with our general cargoes at Tioga.”