The busiest place on the waterfront is no longer in LA, as
ships head instead for N.Y. and N.J.
Updated: Dec. 20, 2022, 8:47 a.m.| Published: Dec. 20, 2022, 8:00 a.m.
By Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Cargo ships docked in Port Newark. Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The Maersk Kleven, a 1,044-foot containership out of Bremerhaven entered New York Harbor earlier this month,
slipping under the Bayonne Bridge before pulling into Port Elizabeth to unload her cargo.
Huge cranes soon hovered over the ship in a mechanized ballet as dockworkers lifted steel containers stacked high
atop the teal-colored vessel in a well-practiced routine that plays out every day.
It’s a busy place, and it now has the title to go with it.
The Port of New York and New Jersey in recent months has become the busiest in the nation, surpassing the Port of
“There definitely has been a shift in cargo from the West Coast,” acknowledged Bethann Rooney, who oversees the
port for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where cargo volumes have been soaring to record highs.
Whether the port here keeps its bragging rights into the new year as the busiest is in doubt. But the numbers are
reflective of major changes in the shipping industry that has turned the transport of everything from toys for
Christmas to food for dinner into a giant, ever-changing game of Tetris in the moving of goods from one part of the
globe to another where they are needed.
For the Port of New York and New Jersey, those changes are bringing billions in new commerce, with the need to
move good quickly being colored these days by shipping costs, the threat of labor upheavals, the continuing fallout
of the pandemic and efforts to cut risk.
“The great news is that our port has shown that it can handle the increased volume without suffering the backups
being experienced elsewhere, which encourages shippers to continue sending goods here,” said John W. Bartlett,
chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.
The region’s piers and marine terminals include ports in Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Last year, the Port of New York and New Jersey moved more than 8.9 million cargo containers (as measured in TEUs,
or 20-foot equivalent units, a benchmark to reflect the different sizes of those containers), an increase of 20.2%
percent from pre-pandemic 2019 totals, setting an all-time record annual high for the port.
What’s inside those boxes, along with the ships bringing oil, bulk freight, and motor vehicles, drives the region’s
economy. Manufactured goods from Eastern Europe, textiles from India, cars from Germany, wine from Italy and
just about everything from China — which is the port’s biggest trading partner.
Much of the trans-Pacific trade once went mostly to the West Coast, and to the Port of Los Angeles in particular — a
direct line to the United States. It was far quicker and cheaper to direct cargo there and then send goods east by rail,
rather than wait weeks for a container ship to transit the Panama Canal to reach the Gulf and East Coast ports.
But labor unrest, unsettled contract negotiations and manufacturing slowdowns in an age of COVID have added a
new calculus for shippers who once looked only at how quickly they could move things — the element of risk.
“There is concern over the reliability,” explained Rooney.
A year ago, the problems at Port of Los Angeles became emblematic for the worldwide supply chain crisis, with
goods stuck aboard as many as 100 ships waiting at anchor to be berthed and unloaded, snarling Christmas
deliveries around the globe. Shipping rates began soaring amid further disruptions in the wake of the pandemic and
a lot of companies who depend on materials and products from China and other Asian countries looked for ways to
diversify after taking into account the backup on the West Coast that was adding time and costing them money,
John J. Nardi, president of the Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey, said the collective bargaining
agreement between management and longshore workers on the West Coast that expired in July added more
uncertainty to the mix.
“Historically such contract expirations have resulted in slowdowns or lock outs,” he said. “Shippers have shifted
some of their cargo routings to the East Coast to mitigate the risk of getting caught up in any labor disputes.”
Maersk, the Danish conglomerate that is the second-largest container shipping company in the world, agreed with
“Many importers and exporters have diverted their cargoes away from the U.S. West Coast ports to alternative ports
on the U.S. East Coast and U.S. Gulf while the U.S. West Coast port labor negotiations are ongoing to avoid any
uncertainty or disruption to supply chains,” said Maersk spokesman Tom Boyd. “In fact, 85% of the Port of New York
and New Jersey’s growth is attributed to diverted cargoes from Southern California ports.”
The shift of cargo due to the labor contract has happened in the past, according to Nardi — although not to this
“But each time, a portion of that freight has stayed on the East Coast after the contract is settled,” he noted, adding
that there is no firm outlook on when that contract might be settled.
At the same time, Nardi said persistent delays in West Coast ports due to congestion and rail delays were other
reasons for the redirection of freight to the ports here, as was the move of production facilities from China to
locations closer to the East Coast.
Some of that shift has included an increase in manufacturing from parts of eastern Europe, including Poland,
according to Rooney. Textile and clothing production has moved from China to Vietnam and India, which has sent
cargo west through the Suez Canal and the Port of New York and New Jersey, a shorter journey than to Los Angeles.
Over the past year, the port here has seen eight new ocean carrier services that have not previously done business
here, she pointed out, including new service coming out of the Mediterranean and others out of Central and South
America, much of it a result of a greater diversification of sourcing.
Rooney added that the New York and New Jersey ports are also far less dependent on rail than the West Coast ports,
offering less exposure to threats of a rail strike.
Port of LA Executive Director Gene Seroka, addressing the shift in cargo in a press briefing this past week, also noted
the impact on cargo to his port stemming from ongoing labor talks with the longshoremen.
“We’ve got to get this labor contract done,” he told reporters. “That’s the certainty owners are waiting for. So it
can’t happen fast enough.”
At the same time, he acknowledged the shift in cargo was being driven by the experience of shippers at his port in
“Importers and exporters just did not want to go back to their bosses for a third year in a row saying, ‘I got caught in
the teeth of congestion in Los Angeles again,’ so they took a very conservative approach, and in some cases maybe
overcorrected and moved their allocations to those other ports,” he said.
The Port of LA handled 7% less cargo in the first 11 months of 2022 compared to last year’s all-time record, it
reported last week.
But he thinks the cargo will ultimately return to his port.
“We need to work for every pound of freight. We need a united industry push to demonstrate why LA should be our
customer’s first choice,” he remarked.
Imports to the U.S. overall are down, and Rooney has no expectation that the Port of New York and New Jersey will
retain its crown as the nation’s busiest. Yet she believes a lot of the cargo that shifted here will remain.
While shipping rates have dropped “exponentially in the past few months,” she said concerns over proposed tough
new environmental regulations in California affecting the trucking industry remain a major cause for concern for
“They are reluctant to put all their eggs in the California basket,” Rooney said.
Some, she pointed out, are already building new warehouse facilities in New Jersey, far from the docks of Los
“They don’t intend to go back,” said Rooney.