More than 20 stories above Newark Bay, a gantry-crane operator perched in a cab maneuvers a giant orange claw, locking onto a cargo container aboard a massive ship just arrived from Europe. The worker plucks the cargo-laden, 40-foot-long metal box from the ship and lowers it to a steel landing platform on the dock.
Nearby, eight-wheeled straddle carriers straight out of Star Wars shuttle the containers from the water’s edge to pyramid-like stacks. The steady, low-pitched rumble of machinery in motion mingles with the safety-warning chirps of the 45-foot-tall straddle carriers.
This is the Port of Newark and Elizabeth, the third busiest in the nation after Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California. It’s the place where so many of the things we purchase—sneakers, televisions, furniture, automobiles and even orange juice—come into the United States.
One-third of the cargo arriving on the East Coast—more than 4.1 million shipping containers, hundreds of thousands of vehicles, piles of rock salt, Belgian blocks and more—enters at the docks, which stretch for more than 2,000 contiguous acres spanning Newark and Elizabeth.
Officially, the port consists of two adjacent locations: Port Newark and Elizabeth Port Authority Marine Terminal. Most simply call it Port Newark. A section of the New Jersey Turnpike runs past Port Newark, separating it from Newark Liberty International Airport, the other busy hub run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“The port is the centerpiece of trade in the region,” says Ron Leibman, a partner specializing in logistics and supply-chain law at McCarter & English, a large New Jersey law firm.
The tides of the global economy come ashore here, reminding us that the United States has evolved over half a century from a place that makes most of its goods to a nation that imports $2.5 trillion worth of products each year. To maintain Port Newark’s viability, the Port Authority and the private companies that operate its container terminals are spending close to $11 billion on infrastructure upgrades to handle new, super-sized vessels that can carry 9,000 or more 40-foot containers. As part of this upgrade, the 90-year-old Bayonne Bridge was elevated, at a cost of $1.7 billion, to let the larger vessels navigate the Kill Van Kull, which flows between Bayonne and Staten Island, connecting Newark Bay to Upper New York Bay.
The port’s multiyear capital-improvement program—including dredging, wharf replacements, rail and roadway improvements, and new, modern equipment—is intended to allow the port to more than double its container traffic by the year 2050, according to the Port Authority.
DRIVING JERSEY’S ECONOMY
Most New Jerseyans speed past the port, never glimpsing more than the towering, distant cranes. But the port—with its massive marine terminals, rail heads and Interstate highway access—is at the heart of the regional economy and a key driver of New Jersey’s economic health, supporting as many as 400,000 jobs and sparking a building boom in warehouses all along the Turnpike.
An estimated $200 billion in goods move through the port annually (based on data for 2018). China, the number 1 trading partner, accounts for about 32 percent of imports and 12 percent of exports. The port benefits from its location in the heart of the most densely populated and affluent consumer base in the nation, says Anne Strauss-Wieder, who tracks port activity as director of freight planning for the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. What’s more, the port is connected to millions more consumers through a web of highways and rail systems that bring cargo as far west as Kansas City.
Strauss-Wieder says that few people realize how the port and New Jersey’s extensive freight network affect their daily lives. “We point and click,” says Strauss-Wieder, “and the house elf delivers it magically to our door.”
Up close, the port is an otherworldly, windswept, industrial landscape, built at an incomprehensible scale. Giant cranes tower at the edge of Newark Bay and its two branching waterways, Elizabeth Channel and Port Newark Channel. Metal shipping containers are stacked like building blocks. Piles of scrap metal, road salt and stone dot the scene. Imported cars line up for acres. One building full of refrigerated tanks holds nothing but orange juice concentrate.
Ships registered in Liverpool, Panama and other far-off locales deliver most of their cargo to three privately owned container terminals along Newark Bay: Port Newark Container Terminal in Newark, and Maher Terminals and APM Terminals in Elizabeth. There’s also port activity in Bayonne (at Global Container Terminals), Brooklyn and Staten Island, but the Newark/Elizabeth complex accounts for 80 percent of the containers and 89 percent of the automobiles that come ashore each year at the Port of New York and New Jersey.
The activity at Port Newark Container Terminal typifies life at the port. Ships are unloaded and loaded around the clock, seven days a week, except for weekday breaks from 6-8 am. Four of the terminal’s 13 cranes are new, imported from Ireland at a cost of $12 million–$15 million each; they are among the tallest in North America. PNCT, a joint venture of Ports America and Terminal Investments Ltd., has invested about $350 million and plans another $150 million in improvements to upgrade the terminal to accommodate the new, wider vessels that began arriving after the Panama Canal was expanded in 2016 and the Bayonne Bridge elevated in 2017. (The other terminals are also investing millions.)
The new cranes are 297 feet from top to bottom when the booms are stretched outward to work the ships. These machines aren’t just big; they’re powerful. “One of these cranes could pick up an empty Boeing 757,” says Chris Garbarino, chief operating officer of the terminal.
THE NEW WATERFRONT
The port is about people, too. Longshore workers operate and maintain modern machinery like the gantry cranes and straddle carriers and monitor the trucks coming through the terminal gates. (Gone are the days when longshoremen hefted bags and boxes.) Truckers fight traffic out of the port’s limited roadways and onto New Jersey’s highways. Customs inspectors, office workers and security personnel also have a hand in the flow of imports and exports.
Then there are the merchant seafarers who venture ashore for new eyeglasses, gifts for loved ones back home, or simply a restaurant meal. Large as they are, each vessel typically requires a crew of only about 20-25. The crew members come from around the globe. The Philippines is the largest supplier, with about 20 percent of seafarers worldwide.
Crew members generally serve on board for six to nine months at a time. The seagoing work is a mixed blessing, as it has been throughout the centuries. A Ukrainian officer, interviewed on board a ship newly arrived from Europe, treasures the view of the stars at sea, free of light pollution. But being away from his wife and young children for months is a hardship. What’s more, even for a veteran seaman, there’s something unnatural about life on the water.
“You have to walk on land, touch something, feel something,” says the officer. Still, the job spells economic security for his family. “In the Ukraine,” he says, “you can’t get a better [financial] option.”
Other mariners are drawn by the adventure of the sea. That’s the case for Kotja Kofeod, a 23-year-old Danish woman who recently disembarked in Newark from the ship Lexa Maersk, where she works in the engine room. She had been at sea for five months; her ship, which sails under the flag of Denmark, had last made port in Germany. As a woman, Kofeod is a rarity on a container ship, but she says she’s not lonely or intimidated and hopes to make a career of the seafaring life.
Like most crew members, Kofeod typically sees only the industrial landscape of the ports. “It’s mostly the same view all the time,” she says of her world travels. On this trip, though, Kofeod had swapped an onboard shift with a crewmate so she could head into Manhattan for sightseeing. Generally, seafarers who disembark only have enough time to visit the Mills at Jersey Gardens mall in Elizabeth.
Although the port is all about commerce, it’s difficult to actually buy anything there. Looking for lunch? There are only a few choices. One of those, Chris’s Lunch Truck, has been run for 14 years by Greek immigrants Chris and Dina Golas of North Arlington. Chris gets up at 3 each morning to start cooking the specials. The truck opens for business at 5:30. “It’s not easy,” says Dina. As warehouses have been torn down to make way for terminal expansions, there are fewer workers at the port, she says. That means fewer customers for the lunch truck.
DANGER ON THE DOCKS
The job of the longshore worker is “highly technical and highly dangerous,” says Jim McNamara, a spokesman for the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents about 4,500 members at the Port of New York and New Jersey. There have been at least four deaths on the New Jersey docks in the last decade and, according to federal data, the fatality rate for dockworkers nationwide is more than five times the average for the U.S. workforce.
The work is fast-paced. “It’s very expensive to operate these ships, and they try to get them in and out as fast as they can,” says McNamara. “It’s an around-the-clock business.” Depending on their sailing schedule, a ship can be unloaded in as little as 36 hours.
Tyreke Wells, 51, has been a longshoreman in Newark and Elizabeth for 15 years. He works on ship decks eight stories above the water, managing the twist locks that hold containers in place. “We set the decks up, and then you build them like Legos,” says Wells, who has recently returned to work after breaking a finger on the job. Wells is speaking on a winter morning after a night spent unloading a ship from China in an ice storm. “It’s a good job, but it’s hard,” he says. “We work in every kind of weather.”
Wells has a keen sense of his role in the supply chain. “Everything has to be precise. We have to get things off the ship and into the stores,” he says. “You have to be safe, you have to be mindful, and you need your rest, because we move the world. The world wants these products.”
The average longshore worker makes about $32 per hour, according to the union. But last year, NJ Advance Media described a system in which about 10 percent of longshoremen make six-figure salaries, sometimes for low-show jobs. The report detailed 100 dockworkers making more than $300,000, with one making in excess of half a million dollars a year.
The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor estimated three years ago that shippers were paying $117 million annually for labor they weren’t receiving, says executive director Walter Arsenault. The bistate group investigates corruption on the docks and monitors hiring—for example, blocking known members of organized crime from becoming longshoremen. The commission works with multiple law enforcement agencies that prosecute misdeeds at the port, like the 2017 case of the foreman convicted of fraud for collecting almost $500,000 in annual pay for a no-show job.
The commission was created in 1953 to fight the kind of corruption portrayed in the classic movie On the Waterfront. While much has changed since longshoremen worked the gritty Hoboken docks depicted in the movie, problems with labor racketeering remain, and the costs are increasing, says Arsenault. Those costs ultimately get passed to consumers and make Port Newark a more expensive place to do business.
McNamara, from the longshoremen’s union, rejects the characterization of labor racketeering at Port Newark. He points out that several agencies—including the Port Authority Police, the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security—police the docks and notes that the union adheres to its own code of ethics. The issue of labor costs, he says, is one that management can address through negotiations.
LAGGING ON EMISSIONS
After the vessels are unloaded, truckers line up to pick up the containers. Trucks take about 85 percent of the cargo out of the port. (The rest moves by rail.) There are only a few main roads in and out of the port area; traffic can be brutal.
For generations, Newark’s tightly packed Ironbound district and other East and South Ward neighborhoods that border the port, as well as parts of Elizabeth, have borne the brunt of the traffic and diesel pollution. “We’ve never seen sincere and adequate engagement of the community by the port,” says Melissa Miles, environmental justice manager for the Ironbound Community Corporation and a neighborhood resident.
Amy Goldsmith, chair of the state’s Coalition for Healthy Ports, says the Port Authority has been slow to clamp down on emissions from ships, which are powered by diesel engines. The engines continue to run while in port because the ships need power for their equipment and for the seafarers who remain onboard.
Goldsmith says efforts to lower truck emissions have also lagged. Most truckers, she says, are independent contractors. On average, they earn less than $30,000 a year and can’t afford emissions-saving innovations.
For its part, the Port Authority says it’s serious about reducing pollution. Since 2009, the agency has offered truckers $25,000 grants to help them replace their trucks with cleaner vehicles. And in 2008, the agency set a goal to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 35 percent by 2025 (across all its operations, not just the docks). This is aided by the new, larger ships, which are designed to be more energy efficient. Moreover, the Port Authority offers incentives to vessel operators to reduce speed and burn cleaner fuel in or near the port.
“We understand that we need to do more, and we’re committed to doing more, and are encouraging statewide efforts,” says Beth Rooney, deputy director of the port department at the Port Authority.
Security is another pressing issue. Before the 9/11 terror attacks, “residents would come to the port at lunchtime and watch ships come and go,” Rooney says. Now, the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection keep a close eye on all the ships coming in, as well as the cargo and people on board. Truckers and workers going into terminals must pass FBI background checks. Containers and trucks are screened for radiation. “That’s looking—I hate to say it—for weapons of mass destruction,” Rooney says.
Contraband is another consideration. In February, law enforcement agencies at the port seized 1.6 tons of cocaine from Chile, with a street value estimated at $77 million. It was the largest bust at the port since 1994.
It is unclear what impact President Trump’s escalating trade war with China and tariffs on imports will have on U.S. ports. For now, Port Newark continues to adjust to the arrival of the megaships, which account for nearly 30 percent of traffic. That is expected to increase.
As it looks to the future, the Port Authority is searching for ways to get cargo out of the port as efficiently as possible without further burdening the roads, Rooney says. One idea is to develop a maritime highway, using barges to carry goods on rivers. Increased use of trains is another possibility; last year, the port boosted rail traffic by 13.8 percent.
Improved planning and advances in technology, such as electric and autonomous vehicles, can help make the future manageable, says Angel Estrada, a Union County freeholder who chairs the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.
“The logistical challenges are tremendous, but the solutions are there,” Estrada says. “It’s now about developing the infrastructure. The port is a driving engine for economics in the region, and we need to keep it that way.”
REVOLUTION IN A METAL BOX
It’s just a simple metal box, but the shipping container is part of a global economic upheaval that has moved U.S. factory jobs overseas and made cheap consumer goods available to America.
And it all started in Port Newark. “Newark was where the container revolution began,” says Marc Levinson, author of The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton University Press, 2006).
Malcom McLean, a trucking-and-shipping entrepreneur, was the first to make financial sense of the idea of packing goods in big tin cans that could be plucked off ships and dropped onto a truck chassis or a rail flatcar. In 1956, McLean sent the first container ship from Newark to Houston.
“The Newark docks were not heavily used, and the Port Authority was desperate to bring business there,” Levinson says. “This seemingly harebrained idea of running a container business came along, and the Port Authority jumped on it.”
Obviously, McLean was onto something. Containers now dominate world shipping.
Low-cost shipping meant companies didn’t have to build factories near their customers. Instead, they could move their manufacturing to cheaper labor markets overseas, contributing to the long decline in U.S. factory jobs. The container is also a big reason why Americans have ready access to products from around the world.
The container changed the waterfront, too. No longer do armies of burly longshoremen hoist goods at the docks. Old, traditional ports (such as the New York docks) shriveled as newer ports like the Port of Newark and Elizabeth, equipped with giant cranes, took over the job of moving goods around the world.—KL