WHERE IT ALL COMES TOGETHER: Ports are a vivid lesson in various ways to move

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WATERWAYS, highways and railways all come together to mark the intricate intermodal hub that defines a port.

It’s easy to think of a port as nothing more than a place where ships disembark and embark, loading and unloading their goods. But that’s not the half of it.

A port is more like a symphony in which different ways of travel must move together in smooth, mutually supportive exchanges. At an interface of land and water, it requires the coordination of “multimodal transportation.”

“A port and region needs the facilities for seamless transfer between various modes: vessel, truck and rail,” explained Jeff Theobald, executive director of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. This commonwealth body administers 14 facilities in the city where goods enter or leave the sea via the Delaware River.

The Port of Philadelphia is also a partnership between public and private business. “The Port of Philadelphia is what is known as a landlord port,” said Theobald. “We provide the facilities where our tenants and others provide the services. We have some of the best stevedores and terminal operators in the country.”

But ports can be wholly private affairs, noted Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River & Bay, a private nonprofit agency that unites the ports of three states that share this waterway. He cited the Penn Terminal in Chester, which is owned by Australian investors.

Robert Palaima of Delaware River Stevedores, Inc., is a PRPA tenant. His firm operates the Tioga Terminal in Port Richmond. A terminal is the point at which the rubber meets the road – or rail. Palaima’s job is to get private shippers to sail to his facility, bearing private cargoes which DRS then dispatches to private customers using private railroads (which have private infrastructure) or private truckers (which use public infrastructure).

It’s complicated. And it’s competitive. Palaima roams the world, “wearing down shoe leather,” as he put it, in an endless quest for new business. Rival ports send their own reps abroad, sniffing the same paths. The same ports also lobby all tiers of government for scarce dollars to come to them instead of Philadelphia.

What the Commonwealth of Penna.’s $300 million investment in the Port of Phila. aims to do for our region’s economy.

Infrastructure is key. So the PRPA community was ecstatic when Gov. Tom Wolf committed $300 million to improving the port’s infrastructure last November. The money will go to newer and more-powerful berths, improvements to extant berths and expanded storage for shipping containers at the Packer terminal in South Philadelphia.

The port is never finished. The world marketplace is always changing, so what was good enough yesterday can become uncompetitive tomorrow. Theobald has his eye on further projects.

“More improvements can be made,” he said. “Road condition and access from I-95 are being programmed for improvement. Technologies like OCR (optical character recognition) are being implemented, which will provide exchange of information without a truck having to stop. These are the same technologies that are used at newer EZ-Pass lanes.”

Intermodal work competes both by quality and by speed. “In Philadelphia, we are proud to say that the turnaround time – how long it takes a trucker to get on to a terminal to pick-up or drop-off a loaded container and get back on the road – is less than one hour,” Theobald stated. “This is better than industry standards.”

But US infrastructure is a worry for all three modes. “Sadly, throughout the country, it is underinvested,” said Palaima.

“As we move forward in partnership with the trucking community, railroads, the City of Philadelphia and PennDOT, more improvements will need to be made,” Theobald asserted. “But for now, we have what it takes to make the port grow rapidly.”

One strength of Philadelphia’s port is that it is serviced by the main railroads of the Northeastern US, CSX and Norfolk Southern. It also lies on the I-95 corridor, and close to the “distribution corridor” just inland along I-81.

Long haul favors rail; short-to-medium haul favors trucking. This means Palaima, for instance, can ship steel to Chicago as easily as wood pulp to Mehoopany, Pa. in the Wyoming Valley.

Another of its assets is political. Since three states share the Delaware River, Palaima observed, the region enjoys the influence of six US senators and 10 congressmen. That makes a big difference when it’s time to lobby the Feds for money and other assistance. International ports necessarily are a federal concern in many ways.

That lobbying made all the difference in the decades-long effort to get the Army Corps of Engineers to deepening the shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet. This mammoth undertaking is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, at a total cost of $364 million, mostly federal money.

Why 45 feet? Because in June 2016, the Panama Canal was expanded to accommodate a new generation of supersized “Panamax” freighters. Every port on the East Coast is salivating at the prospect of getting a piece of cargo that used to stop on the Pacific Coast.

But if these big new ships can’t fit into the Delaware, they cannot come here.

In the end, this massive project was barely completed in time for the Palaimas of the port to go seeking Panamax contracts in East Asia.

IN A BYGONE era, Reading Railroad coal trains heading to Port Richmond took Penna.’s signature raw material to the world.

Transportation advances by becoming ever faster and ever bigger. But the planning for its infrastructure demands an expanded timeframe. It also requires a national and international mindset.

Rochford cited a major upgrade of the past as an example. In the 1990s, shippers increasingly moved to standardized containers that could be dropped into ship holds and onto rail & truck flatbeds with ease, without touching their cargoes. That called for ways to pile more containers onto trains.

Stacking one container atop another was one answer; it could double the capacity of a train as less than twice the cost of operation. But oh! Rail tunnels had been cut through the Appalachian Mountains generations ago. They needed to be heightened and widened to handle more business. It wasn’t cheap and it wasn’t quick. But it was done.

That’s how transportation infrastructure builds tomorrow’s prosperity today.

Theobald is hopeful. “We have a chorus of shippers that are looking for alternatives to competing ports of Baltimore and New York/New Jersey. Distribution centers continue to locate closer to the Port of Philadelphia. These are all positive,” he insisted. “However, we need to grow our network of rail destinations and continue to improve the economics of trucking in/out of the port.”

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