As Philadelphia's port expands, the surrounding road network braces for its impacts
Along the concrete shores of the Delaware River, the gray steel hull of the 120,000-ton ship named the Rothorn towers above the wharf. More than three stories tall, the container ship is filled with bulky 40-foot boxes of goods and material that have been shipped from across the globe to the Port of Philadelphia (or, as it prefers to be known, PhilaPort).
From here, the containers will be placed on trucks and on trains, and head out toward distribution centers and rail yards near Allentown, Harrisburg, Lancaster, York, and other points in the Northeast.
A port is an inflection point in the wide logistical web that undergirds our economy. From a hundred factories to dozens of warehouses and freight yards in an array of nations, across the oceans to a single wharf, then back out across our nation's rail lines and highways to dozens of freight yards and warehouse and so on to a hundred stores and homes in cities and small towns.
On the Northeastern Seaboard these ports are, perhaps, not quite as busy as they once were. The rise of manufacturing in Southeast Asia decades ago sent the largest ships to the West Coast; massive vessels - too big for the century-old Panama Canal - would have had to round Cape Horn and sail up the coast of South America to reach the ports of the eastern United States. It is far quicker -- and thus, cheaper -- to offload on the West Coast, in the sprawling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and then ship the containers east via truck or train, across the "North American Land bridge" that crisscrosses the heart of America.
Time, as they say, is money.
But that was before the enlarged Panama Canal reopened in mid-2016. Now capable of handling the largest ships afloat, the bigger canal could upset the old equations that drove maritime traffic to the West Coast, sparking a renaissance of shipping along the Northeastern Seaboard. That in turn could increase the amount of cargo that flows inland from these facilities, freight that would flow along Pennsylvania's -- and the Harrisburg region's -- roads and rail lines. That influx could spell more trucks, more traffic and more logistics centers, continuing to grow what is already one of the largest employment sectors in the state. But with growth comes challenges and headaches -- found in no small part in more trucks on our aging highways, many of which are already at capacity.
Whether the super ships come to Philadelphia remains to be seen. And what effect that has on our highways and interstates remains conjecture -- because the East Coast ports are competing not just against the West Coast but also against each other. Each vying to become a port of call for the super ships traversing the canal.
And so the old ports of Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, which two centuries ago handled the freight and passenger traffic between the New World and the Old World, are rushing to modernize. Channels are being dredged to be deeper and wider, as warehouses and piers that have been out of service for decades are being re-activated or rebuilt, all in the hopes of luring the biggest of the big ships to their waterfronts.
To that end, in Philadelphia the channel up the Delaware River is being made deeper. Out on the wharfs, two older cranes will be replaced with new, larger cranes capable of unloading the bigger ships next year. On the container side of the business alone, the port is hoping to double its capacity over the next decade, investing $188 million in that facility. But containers are only one type of freight that moves through this waterfront.
To some degree, the Port of Philadelphia is really three separate ports rolled into one. Spread over 1,000 acres of Philadelphia's waterfront, the port is fragmented (there are 15 separate facilities), but orderly - and highly secure. Incoming and outgoing trucks and containers (as well as visitors) are tagged and tracked.
To the north of downtown Philadelphia is the Tioga Marine Terminal. Once, the bulk of the winter produce - bananas, papayas and other fruit - for the Northeast moved through this facility, destined for grocery store shelves. When that changed (although the port still moves a lot of produce) it was replaced by eucalyptus wood pulp, shipping in from South America.
Inside a cavernous warehouse directly adjacent to the river, seemingly endless stacks of wood pulp are stacked three stories tall. The unbroken rows of stacked pallets stretch almost as far as the eye can see -- more than a football field in each direction.
Behind the warehouse, under a covered station, Norfolk Southern boxcars are piled full of the pallets, destined for factories near Scranton and other parts of northcentral Pennsylvania, raw material that's destined to be made into toilet and tissue paper.
The following map shows the various facilities that comprise the port:
Further down the river, and just south of the Walt Whitman Bridge -- lies the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, where the Rothorn was berthed. It is here that the port will invest in larger cranes and other equipment to load and unload the bigger ships.
Its location is key; the Walt Whitman Bridge prevents larger ships from navigating up the river. So the improvements to the port to facilitate the bigger container ships must take place south of the bridge.
Beyond the seemingly endless stacks of containers and lined up trucks waiting to be loaded, the almost claustrophobic Packer Avenue terminal gives way to the third and final section of the port -- Piers 120 and 122 of the Southport Marine Terminal, better known as the carport.
While the Packer Avenue terminal is dominated by lines of trucks and containers, Southport is dominated by lines of cars -- specifically sedans and other vehicles bearing the Kia or Hyundai badge.
Large ships -- essentially floating parking garages -- use the port's roll-on/roll-off facility. Drivers are bused to the ships, where they are assigned a car to drive from the ship to immense holding yards -- rows and rows of new cars stretching across the flat fields inside the port.
Philadelphia has become the primary port of call for Hyundai and Kia transport ships -- to the extent that if you see a Hyundai or Kia on the roads east of the Mississippi, there's an even chance it once rolled through Philadelphia. (Both companies also manufacture vehicles inside the United States, as well as Korea).
Southport currently handles about 155,000 cars per year -- which could also double as the port increases its capacity. Last month Philadelphia opened a second pier to vehicle-carrying ships, and is planning to renovate a former seaplane hanger on the old Navy Yard for use as a car-processing center.
In total, between the three facilities the state is investing some $300 million in the Port of Philadelphia. For the port the upgrades to the three facilities are about more than just increasing capacity or the amount of cargo that can be moved through Philadelphia. Instead the port is trying to position itself to compete directly against two of the largest ports on the eastern seaboard: New York and Baltimore.
If the Panama Canal changes the calculus for shippers, there could be a massive amount of freight -- and money and thus jobs -- up for grabs. In Philadelphia, port officials are hoping they can convince those ships to stop on the Delaware River.
At the gate of Port of Philadelphia, a steady line of trucks carrying recently unloaded containers is headed out onto the road.
From this single entry point, the trucks and their cargos will spread across a dense web of highways and railroad lines, which fan out from Philadelphia to logistical centers and freight yards across Pennsylvania and beyond.
And so, 100 miles away, the Harrisburg region is firmly within the spiral of that web. If the Panama Canal upgrades cause shippers to shift their logistical supply chains from the West Coast to the East Coast, by extension that would impact the highways and rail lines crisscrossing the Central Pennsylvania region.
Truck tonnages of goods and commodities on Pennsylvania highways. Between 2011 and 2040, truck traffic in Pennsylvania is expected to grow by 72 percent by weight and 138 percent by value. (PennDOT)
In a 2016 statewide freight study, PennDOT planners concluded that it is hard to predict exactly what impacts the larger canal could have on the state's roads. There were, they said, too many unknown variables -- namely the impact of canal fees -- that could limit the cost-effectiveness of the new canal for shippers.
But, the report noted, if shippers did shift freight to the East Coast, likely impacts will be increased truck volumes on key highways -- I-81, I-83, I-78 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike in addition to I-95, I-70 and I-80.
And few Pennsylvania interstates could be as impacted as much as I-81, which is already one of the busiest freight corridors in the state. With its proximity to various railroad intermodal yards, and links to the ports of Baltimore and New York, I-81 is a key part of Pennsylvania's freight infrastructure.
Heavy truck tonnage on major Pennsylvania highways as of 2011. Major truck routes include I-80, I-81 and I-78 as well as the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (PennDOT)
Which means more trucks traveling in and through the Harrisburg region and more logistics facilities being built on the edges of the suburbs of Harrisburg, York and Lancaster. Even without the reopening of the Panama Canal, freight movement through the region is expected to grow over the next decade plus.
Fueled by rapidly growing suburban communities, as well as its highway links to major cities, freight volumes in the region are forecasted to nearly double over the next 30 years, from 131 million tons per year to 229 million by 2040.
All of which means that, 100 miles from the wharves of the Port of Philadelphia, trucks and traffic will remain a fact of daily life on the region's highways -- just one thread in a vast web of international logistics.