Boston Globe: Boston’s shipping terminal may get a lot bigger

By Jon Chesto  | GLOBE STAFF  

Leaders in the state House of Representatives made a last-minute addition to an economic development bill that includes bonding authorization to spend $107.5 million to expand Massport’s Conley Terminal in South Boston. The funding will help subsidize a $200 million project that includes the construction of a new spot for ships to dock, as well as the purchase of three larger cranes.

The bill is scheduled to go before the full House for a floor debate and potential vote on Thursday. Leaders in the Senate would also need to approve the measure, and the bill would need to be sent to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk by July 31.

“As shipping lines increase the size of ships that they bring to the East Coast, it’s critical that we have the infrastructure that can service those vessels,” said Lisa Wieland, Massport’s port director. “Keeping Conley competitive is critical for Massachusetts businesses and the entire region.”

The trend toward using larger ships is in part related to the Panama Canal expansion that opened last month, one that allows much larger container ships through the canal to East Coast ports. Bigger ships are already starting to come to Boston, Wieland said, noting that a ship from Asia with enough capacity for 8,500 20-foot long shipping containers will begin regular service to the Conley next week. The typical ships that dock at the Conley have much less capacity.

“States up and down the East Coast are investing in their ports to make them capable of handling bigger ships,” said Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for the port authority. “Investing in Conley reduces the amounts of goods that are trucked from [New York and New Jersey ports], which lowers the cost to consumers, improves air quality, and alleviates highway congestion.”

However, the unloading and loading of cargo on the new, larger ship will be constrained because the boxes are stacked higher and wider than the Conley’s existing cranes can reach. The agency has developed a workaround, but it’s a less efficient way to unload, port authority officials said.

There’s another reason for the Conley project: staying out of the way of the airplanes.

Brelis said the “New Panamax” sized ships would be too tall to remain docked at the port’s two existing container-ship berths because they would sit in the way of a Logan Airport flight path. The investment in a new 50-foot-deep berth just to the west of the existing ones, closer to the Summer Street bridge, would enable those larger ships to move out of the way of the jets. The bigger ships would still traverse the flight path to get to that point, but Brelis said that wouldn’t have any significant effect on planes flying in and out of Logan.

The Conley terminal has seen steady growth in business recently, including a 9.4 percent increase in shipment volume in the first half of 2016, compared to the same time in 2015, a record-setting year.

The news of the proposed Conley expansion comes as members of the state’s congressional delegation celebrate a $42 million federal grant they helped win from the US Department of Transportation for the Conley terminal. Brelis said this federal money would be used to repair the Conley’s two existing berths and to help subsidize new gate facilities.

The port authority is also building a new access road that would divert truck traffic off of East First Street, further away from the homes in that part of South Boston’s City Point section.

And Massport is about to embark on a massive dredging project, working with the US Army Corps of Engineers, to make it easier for bigger ships to navigate Boston Harbor.

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.