A project to repair a berth at the Port of Camden in New Jersey will receive a boost of support from this fiscal year’s federal omnibus spending bill.
U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, a Democrat whose district includes Camden, recently announced an additional $750,000 in federal funds to support work on long-neglected portions of the South Jersey Port Corp.’s freight facilities.
The South Jersey Port Corp., the public authority that runs Camden’s port, will use the funds to replace a collapsed section of the 90-year-old Balzano Marine Terminal, which handles bulk shipments of products including steel, wood, cocoa beans and other materials.
“The liquid highway that is the Delaware River is an economic lifeline for South Jersey,” Norcross said in a statement. “By investing in our critical infrastructure, we are increasing the capacity of our ports and local businesses to access markets not just here in South Jersey, but across the country.”
The new funds add to $25 million in federal grants and $11 million in state dollars cleared last year for improvements to other parts of the port’s infrastructure, including road and rail improvements to boost its overall capacity.
Emma Griffith, an analyst for Fitch Ratings, said that there’s been a “swing of cargo” coming to ports like Camden’s across the East Coast after authorities up and down the seaboard dredged waterways, widened canals, and expanded port facilities to accommodate higher volumes of cargo coming from larger and more modern ships.
Often, municipalities have leveraged a mix of funds to carry out such improvements, Griffith said, including federal, state, and private backing along with municipal bonds, all working at a wide range of projects to make it “more attractive for cargo to come in through the East Coast.”
Griffith said the work of local authorities to support the port industry is bearing fruits in the post-pandemic economy amid labor shortages and supply chain issues on the West Coast forcing cargo companies eastward into the open arms of local governments and overhauled port facilities.
“We’ve seen close to 10% growth on the East Coast for most of the gateways relative to the west coast, where it’s either been negative or flat,” she said.
In 2021, the Port of Camden reported moving more cargo than ever before, recording a 54% increase over 2020, topping its previous record for tonnage by 6%. Data includes cargo moving through the corporations newer Paulsboro Marine Terminal 14 miles down the Delaware River.
According to audited financials posted on the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s EMMA bond disclosure website, the South Jersey Port Corp. had $456.2 million of revenue bonds outstanding at the end of 2021.
In August, the Port of New York and New Jersey became the nation’s busiest, reportedly moving 35% more total cargo in September 2022 than it had before the pandemic, supplanting the Port of Los Angeles, which had held the title for two decades.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is also investing heavily in port infrastructure and is currently carrying out a capital plan that calls for $1.1 billion in spending on retrofits and updates for commercial use.
“Now that a lot of that infrastructure is in place, and those improvements have been made, they can handle those larger ships that otherwise couldn’t come to their ports,” Griffith said. “We’re starting to see bigger vessels coming from Europe.”
Increases in imports are driven in part by the growth of burgeoning industries taking root in the U.S., including electric vehicle companies taking advantage of the southeast’s extensive road, rail, and water infrastructure and generous government incentives to build manufacturing and distribution networks to meet an expected uptick in demand on their products.
Resource-hungry battery plants in need of a steady supply of raw materials and assembly facilities requiring a reliable means of exporting domestically and globally are increasingly relying on eastern ports to establish those chains, Griffith said.
“This investment directly translates into job retention and creation,” Andy Saporito, executive director and CEO of the South Jersey Port Corp., said in a statement about the federal grant, saying the Port of Camden project would create both temporary work associated with construction and permanent union positions for dockworkers, the equipment operates, and truckers.
Port infrastructure projects are often complex and expansive lending them to some permanence, Griffith added.
“It’s not stuff that’s easy to put up and take away and there are jobs tied to all of that supply chain in that movement,” she said. “A new terminal facility, a new warehouse, or a new trucking intermodal facility, those are things that will have some staying power.”
As many port projects are being carried out with a mix of funding that includes municipal bonds, she said analysts will weigh the pace of continued development with the realities of market demand to make sure the tail isn’t wagging the dog.
“We don’t like to see things where it’s ‘built it and they will come,'” Griffith said. “You want to be careful that when you’re undertaking a large capital program that you have a partner who’s going to use the facility because it’s lasting infrastructure that can be costly to put in place.”