It’s a safe bet that most Americans have never heard of the Kill van Kull—the tidal strait that separates New York’s Staten Island from New Jersey—or of the Bayonne Bridge, the structure that spans it. But the Kill is the principal access point for oceangoing container ships entering Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal, which happens to be the most heavily trafficked port in the eastern United States, handling nearly one-third of the East Coast’s cargo. Thus, the Bayonne Bridge is one of America’s more important pieces of infrastructure. The handiwork of the brilliant Swiss architect Othmar H. Ammann, it was the world’s longest steel-arch bridge when completed in 1931.

But neither Ammann nor his contemporaries anticipated the future of commerce. In particular, they didn’t foresee the “containerization” revolution, in which ships stacked high with containers would ply the ports of the world. And therein lies the problem with the Bayonne Bridge: it’s too low. At high tide, its roadway sits a mere 151 feet above the water. Already, some of the larger container vessels—which rise 175 feet or more above the waterline—cannot clear it and must wait until low tide, fold down their antenna masts, or take on ballast to pass beneath the structure. Even those measures sometimes fail. In 2009, the NYK Nebula tried to enter Newark Bay, but its keel-to-mast height of 197 feet held it back. The ship had to set off for the Port of Norfolk to reconfigure its load, running up a bill of tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary expense, not to mention the additional cost of delaying the delivery of its goods.

The Nebula incident was just a taste of things to come. Already, the world’s largest container vessels can’t pass beneath the Bayonne Bridge under any conditions. And a little over a year from now, in August 2014, the problem will become much worse. That’s when a new set of locks will be completed in the Panama Canal, whose channel will become dramatically deeper and wider. The capacity of container ships is measured in TEUs (20-foot-equivalent units), each of which represents the size of a standard container—20 feet long and eight feet wide. At the moment, the canal’s dimensions limit ships to 5,000 TEUs, but the new locks will permit ships as large as 13,000 TEUs to move from the Pacific to the Atlantic without making a long slog around the southern tip of Chile. Enormous container ships from China and other Asian countries will enjoy ready access to the eastern seaboard of the United States.

But not to New York and New Jersey. Thanks to the Bayonne Bridge, the harbor there will lose out to rivals like Norfolk, Halifax, Baltimore, and Savannah. And if goods destined for the New York area can’t be moved here by ship, they will have to come by other means—trucks, presumably. Given that some 3,000 trucks are required to move the cargo held by a single 6,000-TEU vessel, the negative effect on regional traffic (and environmental emissions) would be considerable. Also at risk would be the 269,000 jobs that the port supports and the $36.1 billion in business income that it generates.

Fortunately, officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey glimpsed the future and took action. Over the last few years, they have begun an extraordinary project to raise the Bayonne Bridge 64 feet without altering its iconic form. The project will be completed in 2017, at a cost of approximately $1 billion. Considering the costs of allowing so much economic activity to wither, the plan is a bargain.

The Bayonne Bridge also illustrates a larger lesson for the country: the benefits of investing in infrastructure, which provides the physical skeleton on which the vital organs of the economy depend. Government has an essential role to play in everything from infrastructure maintenance to upgrades to new construction. The problem, in New York and elsewhere, is that government has been profligate and irresponsible. For years, state and municipal governments have neglected infrastructure and instead engaged in runaway borrowing and taxing, while lavishing resources on favored interest groups—especially public-sector unions, with their outlandish pension and health-care benefits. The same model has persisted at the federal level. President Obama’s 2009 economic-stimulus legislation, which nominally invested in infrastructure, was laden with waste and did remarkably little to improve the nation’s physical assets.

As we seek a cure for our fiscal ailments, we must avoid doing further harm. If we scrimp on infrastructure spending, we run the risk of inflicting an additional wound on the economy, adding long-term damage to what reckless fiscal policies and entitlement programs have already done. Only time will tell if the raising of the Bayonne Bridge—keeping New York open for business—stands as a metaphor for the country’s economic future.


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