Too Big For Their Bridges … A repeat of Vol. XI, Art. 4 (April 9, 2007)

It wasn’t too long ago that we first heard the term “PanaMax. The term was applied to those container ships that could barely be squeezed through the Panama Canal. Those must be awful big cargo ships, we thought. Our WWII North Carolina class battleships were designed so that their 750-foot lengths and 106-foot beams could transit the canal, and we were pretty sure that things couldn’t get much larger than that.

Well, they have. Much larger. Much larger than PanaMax container ships and our World War II battlewagons. We’ve now become accustomed to hearing the terms, “Post-PanaMax”, “Suez-Max”, “Post-Suez-Max”, “Malacca-Max”, and even “Post-Malacca-Max”. Just how big are those floating boxes, anyway? And how much bigger will they get?

Germanischer Lloyd and Hyundai Heavy Industries in Korea, it has been reported, have been working on the design of a vessel that will be 382 metres long, 54.2 metres wide, and will carry about 13,000 TEUs. HHI is even accepting orders for this gigantic vessel. How long is 382 metres?.

When we were in school, one of our classmates ran the “four-forty” for the track team. That was quite an effort because “four-forty” meant the guy was running 440 yards flat out. 440 yards, of course, translates into 1,320 feet, and as far as we were concerned, that quarter-mile jaunt “looked like a job for superman”. The rest of us had trouble just walking that far.

The new vessel we mentioned above, at 382 metres, comes to 1,253 feet and change. Almost a full quarter-of-a-mile. Almost a full “four-forty”. Breath-taking. But is shock value the reason these behemoths are being promoted? Doesn’t logic and common sense ever come into play with maritime officials? Aren’t they concerned about the drawbacks that come with “overkill”? Instead of allowing themselves to be mired in an “economies of scale mentality”, they should realize that:

– Contrary to popular belief, the operating cost of a PanaMax ship is not proportionally higher than a PostPanaMax ship;

– The introduction of these larger-than-life vessels have imposed demands upon the nation’s infrastructure and have increased transportation costs all along the supply chain;

– These large cargo surges are responsible for logjams and congestion in and around port communities;

– Full cargo loads cannot be guaranteed on these massive vessels, as Neil Davidson has warned, and hoped for ‘economies of scale’ will be cancelled out as a result;

– Because these larger vessels require upgrading within the port and outlying infrastructure, an unfair burden must be shouldered by consumers and taxpayers;

– These large vessels require longer periods of time for loading and offloading, and because that extra time in port affects sailing schedules, increased speeds and higher fuel consumption are called for;

– PostPanaMax ships consume 20 tons more of fuel each day than PanaMax vessels. There are about 44,000 gallons of diesel fuel in 20 metric tons, and if all our ports are overrun by these ships in the next 20 years, each wasting more than a million gallons of diesel each year, what effect will this reckless squandering have upon the cost of fuel at the pump, do you suppose?

– It takes 15 to 20 minutes to bring one of these large vessels to a standstill, which adds almost a half hour to every maneuver, and increases fuel consumption as well;

– These very large ships can only be brought into port during daylight and when the wind falls below 10 knots;

– Only three U.S. ports can handle these large ships – Long Beach, Oakland and Seattle;

– And of course, the Panama Canal can’t handle them;

– It takes four to five days to unload these large vessels, instead of two or three;

– These larger vessels require the use of taller, bigger and more expensive cranes than those found in most ports;

– They require longer berths than those available in most ports;

– These larger vessels force major railroads to make adjustments, such as running longer trains on nonstop routes across the West;

– In order to accommodate these giants, enormous amounts of funding will be required for dredging, berth expansion, equipment upgrading, bridge and highway replacement projects.

But because it’s the ship owners and not the consumers who are benefitting from the so-called ‘economies of scale’, shouldn’t they be required to fund the infrastructure upgrading required by their oversized vessels? The debate could go on forever, of course, but we’d be missing the point completely. No matter who pays the tab, spending money for infrastructure upgrading would be like flushing it down the drain. According to Norman Mineta, the former DOT Secretary, the real issue is: S-P-A-C-E. Authorities agree that, 20 years hence, U.S. ports will be servicing three times as many vessels as they are today. Will a wider highway be of any use? Or a higher bridge? Or a 24/7 schedule? Or another committee? Couldn’t we just throw more money at the problem? Those fantasies miss the mark completely. The problem is the lack of space. That’s what Secretary Mineta was getting at when he said that, “… all the maritime deals in the world will accomplish nothing unless we confront the twin challenges of capacity and congestion”. The lack of S-P-A-C-E is the problem. And we’re not talking about Outer Space, we’re talking about Waterfront Space.