Boston’s Port Bets Bigger Cranes, Dredging Will Lure Larger Ships

Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

Posted on September 9, 2021

Major ports around the U.S. are struggling with queues of anchored ships  and yards of containers piled as high as local fire departments will allow. Now some of the smaller, regional trade gateways are relishing the opportunity to expand amid all that congestion.

Take the Port of Boston, where the cranes of the Conley Terminal near Southie’s industrial core stand just under the final approach to Logan Airport. The port committed to spending $850 million in recent years to become big-ship ready and better compete with larger rivals. The crown jewels of the expansion: three taller cranes expected to be commissioned in late September.

The additional capacity could hardly have arrived a better time. Many of the larger American ports are handling record amounts of cargo this year as the pandemic boosts consumer spending on merchandise and sends companies scrambling to restock inventories.

But Boston, which bills itself as the only full-service container port serving the six New England states, still hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic volumes. It has about a 45% share of the region’s market for inbound and outbound freight, a number port officials expect will go well over 50% when all the improvements are finished.

Key to that effort are those new cranes and a deeper harbor — allowing bigger vessels from China.

“We have so many importers and exporters that are already saying, ‘sign me up for more bookings,’” Lauren Gleason, deputy director at the Massachusetts Port Authority, said on a recent tour of the facility. “The demand is really bursting at the seams to bring their cargo through here.”

Dredge It and They Will Come

The Port of Boston is betting upgrades will help revive its cargo volumes

Source: Massachusetts Port Authority

*TEU stands for a 20-foot equivalent unit, a standard measure of container volumes

Boston currently is served by two weekly container services — one by Geneva-based MSC from North Europe, and another linking Asia via the Ocean Alliance, a carrier partnership of Evergreen, Cosco, CMA CGM and OOCL.

“We’re already in deep conversations with the ocean carriers who are making decisions at their headquarters in Asia,” Gleason said. “We know that the allocation is going to increase again and get more bookings through Boston now that we can start to handle the larger ships.”

The cranes will help, but so will the dredging of Boston Harbor to 47 feet, deepening the area around one of the berth’s to 50 feet and expanding the turning basin so vessels capable of carrying 14,000 20-foot containers can navigate safely.

Despite its distance from Asia, Boston is focused on capturing markets there.

“We have very large industries up here of furniture, apparel, retail, as well as the exporters focused on recycled fibers, cardboard – they’re really all focused on Southeast Asia,” Gleason said, adding that the port is also seeing stronger demand from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Latin America.

“We’re not looking to be big like some of the other East Coast gateways, because we don’t have the rail connectivity, but we know that there’s a major market potential to grow exponentially here to service the six New England states,” she said.

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