Raising the Bayonne Bridge

What: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge to give more air draft for larger cargo vessels.

Why: The bridge's current 151 feet of draft is too short for many post-Panamax ships.

How: Crews are building a roadway above the current four-lane roadway, which will be removed.

When: The $1.3 billion project is slated to be completed by 2015.

The Bayonne Bridge may only connect a part of northern New Jersey with New York City, but a billion-dollar project to raise the iconic steel-arch connection is expected to bring more cargo to ports in the Southeast.

That's why, more than 700 miles south, Charleston and Savannah maritime officials are monitoring the project that will raise the Bayonne Bridge's roadway from its current 151 feet to 215 feet for the air draft needed to accommodate larger cargo vessels from an expanded Panama Canal.

The raising of the bridge is considered a critical piece in the string of improvements to port infrastructures along the East Coast. The improvements are geared toward enticing more larger vessels to stop at cargo terminals all along the Eastern Seaboard, including the highly competitive Southeast region.

"The raising of the Bayonne Bridge will remove a significant restraint for big ship deployment to the East Coast," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of S.C. State Ports Authority. "That's because most of the terminals in New York and New Jersey are constrained by the 151-foot height limit of the Bayonne Bridge."

The Bayonne Bridge's current roadway height is shorter than the 187 feet of air draft at the Ravenel Bridge and the 155 feet of clearance under the Don Holt Bridge.

Experts say shippers traditionally stop at three to four ports on the East Coast, loading and unloading a mixture of exports and imports at various regions before returning to Asia or Europe.

"There is not a ship service to come from Asia or Europe and only call on New York," Newsome said. "It has to call on more ports to load it because there are different dynamics to each region and they're linked by port capabilities."

Scott J. Mason, a professor of supply chain optimization and logistics at Clemson University, agrees.

"These bigger boats will come with even more freight than the current boats do," he said. "Not every location needs tons of material."

Mason added the logistics web includes vessels stocked with goods to supply each individual region such as New York City, Washington and Atlanta.

"It could just be getting it closer to the end customer, and that means multiple stops," he said.

Many ports along the East Coast are improving infrastructures and deepening shipping lanes to accommodate the larger cargo vessels expected to flow through an expanded Panama Canal, a project estimated to be completed in 2015.

The big haul

The larger, more fuel-efficient vessels are the latest in a string of measures shippers are using to lessen the costs associated with hauling cargo.

That means replacing today's vessels that carry roughly 5,000, 20-foot-long containers, with ones that can average 8,000 or more containers, better known as the post-Panamax category of vessels that more lines are using. Post-Panamax describes vessels too long or wide to squeeze through the Panama Canal now.

That, in turn, puts a strain on the Bayonne Bridge, an 80-year-old, 5,780-foot-long structure that spans the Kill Van Kull tidal strait between Bayonne, N.J., and Staten Island, N.Y.

The Kill Van Kull is already dredged to 50 feet, but the Bayonne Bridge's short height thwarts many larger ships from steaming to local container ports in Newark and Elizabeth, N.J.

That's why the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced plans to raise the span in 2010, a $1.29 billion project scheduled to be completed in 2015, officials said.

The project entails constructing a roadway above the bridge's current four-lane road that will eventually be removed.

Network of ports

The Bayonne Bridge marks one of several major port infrastructure projects along the East Coast.

Each is geared at helping the network of terminals. That includes enhancements such as more land-side infrastructure, improved rail access and deeper waters for the vessels.

"We work as an East Coast brand of ports to promote East Coast commerce versus West Coast," Newsome said. "We all work together to see the growth of cargo to the East Coast, and then within that we have competition between us."

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, a competitor of the SPA, agrees. "It's not one single port. We need multiple ports to grow infrastructure to accommodate the modern ships," Foltz said. "Every port has its own Achilles' heel, and New York's was the air draft with the Bayonne Bridge."

Foltz said every port needs to work as one in terms of improving its capabilities to ensure bigger ships can tie up at terminals without a problem.

"I see the Bayonne Bridge as no different from Savannah and Charleston deepening (their shipping lanes)," he said. "We all have the need to improve."

Ports such as Charleston and Savannah are adding more land-side capacity while also in a race to deepen navigation channels to give enough draft for the behemoth vessels to steam into their terminals.

"They all need to be done because you can't take full advantage without all others completed," Foltz said. "You have to look at it like it's a network."

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.