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A trio of gigantic cargo cranes are headed to South Boston port from Shanghai

The cranes will play a key role in an $850 million effort to prepare Boston Harbor for larger cargo ships

The booming South Boston Waterfront will get some new additions to its skyline in June. This time, though, those new structures, three giant cranes, will arrive here fully built, and brought here by ship from Shanghai.
The booming South Boston Waterfront will get some new additions to its skyline in June. This time, though, those new structures, three giant cranes, will arrive here fully built, and brought here by ship from Shanghai.Photo courtesy of the Massachusetts Port Authority

The booming South Boston Waterfront is about to get some new additions to its skyline. This time, though, the new structures will arrive fully built, brought here by ship from Shanghai.

The Massachusetts Port Authority received word on Tuesday that three cargo cranes ordered from crane manufacturer ZPMC — two that will be 205 feet high, and one that will be 145 feet — have departed on a 765-foot long flatbed ship to travel across the Pacific Ocean, through the Panama Canal, and up the eastern seaboard to Boston. The three cranes, each weighing at least 2,000 tons, won’t arrive until sometime in June.

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The cranes will be taller than the six 135-foot-high cargo cranes that are used to unload ships at the Conley Terminal today. They’ll be installed at a new berth, built on the Reserved Channel just to the west of the preexisting one, and will be operational in the fall. Massport has, over time, grown the Conley terminal by 30 acres, to its current size of 130 acres, in anticipation of the new cranes and additional cargo traffic.

Massport received a $107.5 million boost from the state Legislature in 2016 to subsidize the $215 million Conley upgrade, including the $42 million purchase of the three cranes and the construction of the new berth.

It’s all part of a broader, $850 million effort funded by state, federal, and Massport sources to prepare the harbor for larger, wider cargo ships. This effort features a massive dredging project to add another 7 feet of depth to the harbor’s main shipping channel, dropping it down to 47 feet below the surface, that will be completed next year.

The new cranes will be the tallest “low profile cranes” in the world, said port director Mike Meyran. That’s a reference to the fact that these kinds of cranes typically extend to above 300 feet in height, but Massport’s new cranes have to stay closer to the ground because of their proximity to the planes that fly in and out of Logan Airport, on the other side of the harbor.

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The largest ships currently need to approach Conley at high tide, and the containers need to be stacked in the right place, closest to shore, because the existing six cranes often can’t reach all the way across to the other side of the ship decks, or to the tops of the container stacks. This creates a bit of a delicate dance that slows down the delivery of goods in and out of the Boston port, which serves all of New England. Even with these space constraints, the Conley terminal had been steadily growing its shipping volume until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Conley set a new record in the 2019 fiscal year of 307,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs (essentially equal to a packed 20-foot-long shipping container). Volume slipped 8 percent in the fiscal year that ended last June.

Currently, ships from two cargo companies stop in Boston: Mediterranean Shipping Co., out of Antwerp, via the Atlantic; and the Ocean Alliance consortium out of China, via the Pacific. Massport officials are eager to add a shipping connection to Southeast Asia, but the port expansion needs to happen first, Meyran said.

“We physically can’t handle the ships coming out of Southeast Asia,” Meyran said. “There’s a really strong demand from importers and exporters in New England. But in order to do that, you need to be able to handle the big-size ships.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.