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editorial

Dredge Boston Harbor

Advent of much larger cargo vessels means city’s venerable port will have to adapt

Three times a week, large container ships dock at South Boston’s Conley Terminal. Enormous cranes and some 1,000 workers work in tandem to offload the cargo — mostly alcoholic beverages, frozen seafood, and furniture — from Asia and across the Atlantic. In about 30 minutes, the goods are loaded onto trucks headed for points throughout New England. The ships are then reloaded — this time, with animal skins, paper, scrap metal, and more frozen seafood — before continuing on to their next port of call. The process is at once complex and orderly.

Yet the shipping industry is undergoing dramatic changes amid relentless pressure to transport more cargo faster; today in Boston, it takes half as long to unload a cargo container from a ship and discharge it via truck as it did just eight years ago. But how long Boston’s port will remain competitive amid even farther-reaching changes is an open question.

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The world’s transoceanic vessels are about to swell massively, as the Panama Canal undergoes a $5.3 billion expansion that will have a considerable impact on both trade and volume. Already, nearly 13,000 ships pass through the canal each year, carrying some $18 billion in goods headed to the United States. By 2015, however, the canal’s capacity will be doubled, allowing vessels traveling through its locks to be 25 percent longer, 50 percent wider and, with a deeper draft as well, able to carry two or three times the cargo.

Up and down the Eastern seaboard, ports from Miami to New York have spent billions of dollars to ramp up their own capacity to accommodate the so-called “New Panamax” super-ships by deepening harbors to at least 50 feet. Boston, though, hasn’t followed their lead so far. But if the city wants a viable port going forward, it must race to catch up.

Massport, which operates Conley Terminal, wants to dredge Boston Harbor and its channels. Because of its high tidal range, the 40-foot-deep main shipping channel needs to deepened by 7 feet, and the outer harbor by 11 feet, to accommodate the larger ships. The deepening would also serve Massport’s automobile port on the Mystic River, Boston’s cruise terminal, and dozens of private terminals that together bring about 20 million tons of liquid and dry bulk goods into Boston each year. But the $300 million construction project, expected to take three to four years, is not an easy sell. While the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency authorized the dredging in early July, Congress as well as public and private entities in Massachusetts must still agree to fund it.

If Boston Harbor once sparked a revolution, today its role in American commerce is more modest. About 100,000 containers are expected to be offloaded at Conley Terminal this year. That’s roughly 2 percent of the cargo handled annually at the Port of New York and New Jersey. For most ships coming from Asia, Boston is a last stop, tacked on as an afterthought rather than a destination.

Care will need to be taken that construction doesn’t disrupt the natural habitats of lobster and other species, the lifeblood of small local fisheries. And everyone involved must have realistic expectations. Massport already subsidizes port operations to the tune of $20 million each year. Freight unloaded from ships at the port must be trucked through Boston’s streets rather than being transported by rail, a more economical, greener way. Some days as many as 450 trucks come and go from the port. Unfortunately, Boston can’t accommodate the double-decker rail cars that are standard at most other ports without raising several bridges and the Prudential Center’s foundation.

Yet, Massport is already working on a freight corridor to move trucks out of South Boston more efficiently. Besides, whatever the problems an active port creates, not having one is worse: Without Conley, freight would have to be trucked up from New York or Baltimore. Traffic on the Interstate 95 corridor would go from bad to worse, with an estimated 450 additional trucks per day. Driving cargo up from New York also adds about $1,000 in cost per container, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, an expense sure to be passed on to consumers.

Massport says the Conley Terminal directly supports 1,000 well-paying jobs plus 23,000 more indirectly. But are those jobs worth more than $300 million? And is there another port in the region could benefit more from such an investment?

New Bedford, a deep-water harbor already with rail access, might seem like an obvious answer. Its location, in many ways, is better suited for serving all of New England. Its economy could use an injection of jobs and money. And some logistical barriers that exist in Boston aren’t a problem in New Bedford. For example, in addition to dredging, Massport must also spend $30 million to lengthen Conley’s ship berths and at least $25 million to replace current cranes with larger ones.To avoid flight paths at nearby Logan Airport, those cranes will have to be custom-built at significant cost.

A plane approached Logan Airport above the cranes at Conley Terminal.

George Rizer/Globe staff/file 2006

A plane approached Logan Airport above the cranes at Conley Terminal.

But to prepare New Bedford to welcome New Panamax ships would ultimately be much more expensive. Commercial pollution over several decades has left its waters severely contaminated, requiring costly dredging at what is now a Superfund site, and a hurricane barrier would need to be moved.

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to pay $170 million toward the dredging in Boston, bringing down the cost for Massport dramatically. The corps also projects that, once the project is completed, Boston could capture as much of one-third of New York-New Jersey’s landed cargo, yielding about $100 million in annual benefits. That’s probably wishful thinking, but it’s fair to expect a significant improvement in volume.

Besides, the alternative — to do nothing — would essentially foretell the death of Boston Harbor as a major cargo port. Even if there isn’t a compelling draw for ships to regularly call in Boston today doesn’t mean the world’s rapidly-changing economy won’t produce one in the future. Dredging the harbor now leaves the door open for Conley Terminal to compete for global business tomorrow — and just maybe win it.

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