The cars, clothing and coffee came pouring in last year, along with beer, flat-screen televisions and patio furniture. Where’s the party?
On the waterfront, apparently. Officials of the ports of New York and New Jersey are cautiously optimistic about an economic rebound.
These items were part of a surge of cargo imports in 2010, a volume of activity that came close to the recent high-water mark of 2007 before the recession struck the busiest port on the East Coast.
Statistics released by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey showed that after a particularly dismal year in 2009, cargo container traffic — imports and exports combined — increased by 16 percent last year at ports both in New York City, including Staten Island and Red Hook, Brooklyn, and in New Jersey, including Newark, Elizabeth and Bayonne.
A look at the the cargo volume in 2010 (there were 5,292,020 loaded and empty Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units, compared with 4,561,527 in 2009, according to the Port Authority), would seem to indicate that the New York economy is returning to robust levels.
“For us, it means the individual that drives the truck now has more business, the companies that handle imported products are seeing more business, it does create a much higher level of activity,” Richard M. Larrabee, who directs the port commerce department at the Port Authority, said in an interview.
Bernard Dudley, who has been president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1233 in Newark since 2001, has to look only as far as the so-called hustle drivers who transport cargo on the docks in Newark to see the change. When the recession hit in 2008 and carried into 2009, these workers would hang around for hours to work. Now they are living up to their name.
“We’re doing super-great,” Mr. Dudley said.
“Maybe 80 guys had second jobs because they couldn’t make ends meet,” he said, but all that changed last year. “Now they are making their hours.”
In 2008, Mr. Dudley said, some of his members were losing their homes, and the union made arrangements to help pay their mortgages. During that time, his membership was cut drastically, to 650 from 800.
Those numbers have not yet rebounded, he said, because the shipping companies are still in discussions with the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor to add jobs.
James Devine, president of the New York Container Terminal, which operates out of Staten Island at the base of the Goethals Bridge, said he hired 15 more people last year and saw a 17 percent increase in his terminal’s business. In a year, a longshoreman’s average salary is about $120,000, Mr. Devine said.
According to a 2008 study commissioned by the New York Shipping Association, the Port of New York and New Jersey supported 270,000 jobs directly and indirectly.
The pickup in the housing market has contributed to the uptick in some imports — like housing supplies, appliances and furnishings, Joseph C. Curto, the president of the New York Shipping Association, said.
Cars, including sport utility vehicles, increased by 12.2 percent in 2010. (In 2009, thousands of imported cars were parked in lots near the port, because auto purchases had plunged.) Imports over all were up 14.9 percent, and exports increased by 9 percent, most of which were related to farm activity like grain products, Mr. Curto said.
Although the numbers did not reach the record figures of 2007, the authority did make about $225 million in revenue from leasing property to the various companies that operate the terminals, according to an official for the agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the revenue will not be made public until April.
But any money made, the official said, went right back into financing its operating expenses and capital expenditures (like improvements in rail service on the docks), which amount to more than double its revenue.
Port and union officials may be thrilled with the boost from 2010, but there is concern on the horizon. The instability in the Middle East, particularly in the Suez Canal, could cause trouble for cargo ships traveling through that crucial waterway.
“Basically, we’re back — and hopefully the crisis in the Middle East will be O.K.,” Mr. Dudley said. “We’re afraid, though, if it gets so unstable, we could wind up where we were in 2008.”