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Interview: Admiral Richard Larrabee “It’s not like you can just find 400 acres and build another container terminal- land is scarce in the port.” Rear Admiral Richard “Rick” Larrabee, heading up the Port Commerce Department at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ), talks very much like a businessman - with a keen eye for strategic planning. At the busy Port Commerce offices in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, Larrabee talked to Port Strategy (PS) about a range of topics- including the nearly $2 Billion Capital Plan for port improvements over the next 10 years, the new type of infrastructure investors, and the “nuts and bolts” of deepening waterways and raising bridges to accommodate larger vessels. Larrabee, who came to PANYNJ in 2000, after retiring from the US Coast Guard, oversees a large landlord port business with 2006 throughput exceeding 5 million TEU (an 8 percent rise over 2005). Dozens of container lines, serving ports throughout the world on all water routes, call at PANYNJ’s six container terminals. At times, problems facing the Port Commerce Department seem daunting. World trade is not standing still; particularly with the widened Panama Canal set to coming on stream in 2014 (at the same time that the Kill Van Kull waterway and Newark Bay will be dredged to 50 feet). Outside stakeholders, recognizing the economic importance of the port (some 320,000 jobs are closely tied to port activity, according to a study by Rutgers University), want a port that supports economic growth, but also want environmental stewardship and mitigation of severe congestion bedeviling the region’s streets and motorways. And, the PANYNJ projects must pay their own way- they do not share in tax collections. One “high class problem” came onto Larrabee’s radar around 2006, when yield oriented and pension investors discovered container terminals (and other port related investments). This asset class offers growing cash flows over long terms- an ideal match for the funds’ financial contours. Within the space of a year, three of PANYNJ’s six major facilities saw their tenants’ business sold to financial buyers. Larrabee told PS: “Last fall <3Q 2006>, after seeing the investment community interest in this type of investment, we realized that we’d need to lay out a set of principals- so we could treat investor-buyers objectively and fairly.” Though all three deals are private (AIG assuming P&O Ports Port Newark Container Terminal, a Canadian pension fund acquiring New York Container Terminal from OOIL and a Deutsche Bank entity gaining control of the Maher Terminal in Port Elizabeth), each transaction entered the media spotlight as the negotiations got down to short strokes. “Each of agreements with tenants had extensive provisions allowing a lessee change of control,” said Larrabee, who enumerated three criteria spelled out by PANYNJ for evaluating infrastructure buyers. “First, are the potential new owners suitable, we did extensive due diligence- they financial resources, management commitment, and operational resources to properly operate the terminals. None of these companies had any history at all in our business, we needed to satisfy ourselves that they would make good judgments.” Several times, in various contexts, during our hour-long session, Larrabee talked about increasing throughput through the port- which straddles New York Harbor- across two states. He stressed that “New York / New Jersey is a landlord port, but everything we do needs to be self supporting,” and, when discussing the three instances of investment funds, he said: “Each of these terminal operators will need to make improvements, and make investments that will increase capacity and improve productivity. We are not going to do it for them.” Such considerations are in congruence with the second criterion enumerated by Admiral Larrabee in evaluating the suitability of new terminal owners: “Where these new owners going to continue to operate these terminals consistently with the long term interests of this port?” He added “The terminals are valuable for us, and for them, we wanted to see evidence that they would continue to fund improvements with capital investments. That’s where some of the big numbers in the trade press, like $54 Million in one case, came from. We asked each one of the operators to commit themselves to invest what we felt were reasonable numbers going forward.” The PANYNJ has been making, and continues making investments to grow its maritime business, a theme highlighted in Larrabee’s investment discussion. He told PS: “And finally- the third criteria in our decisions on investors, which got labeled as the ‘Consent Fee’, was an acknowledgement of direct investment that we had made in the facilities. We wanted a certain percentage, one third, of those expenditures that we had made.” He stressed that indirect expenditures, such as those where PANYNJ splits to the cost of channel deepening with the US Army Corps of Engineers, were not considered. Explaining further, Larrabee explained: “An important part of the value earned by the Sellers, a premium over what they might otherwise have gotten, was due to public investment- improvements in the facilities made by this Agency <PANYNJ>.” “At the end of the day, we were able to tell our Board that we had satisfied the three criteria- then, we had three brand new owners.” Larrabee told us. “Going forward, we would expect all new investments to be made by that terminal operator. That’s not the model that some other big ports are using, resembling a triple net lease. But for us, that’s part of the attraction of this type of new investor. They can access money efficiently, and put it to work- from a strategic standpoint, that’s something we are interested in.” This part of the interview provided a segue into a conversation about the $2 Billion Capital Plan- which includes monies for the local cost share (65 %, going forward) of channel deepening to 50 feet, for common area improvements of roadside infrastructure near the terminals, and ongoing work on the ExpressRail system- where rails connect directly with PANYNJ container terminals. The ExpressRail projects eliminate the drayage component, substantially reducing the time and cost (even after the $45/ lift fee paid by shippers), providing an obvious environmental benefit, as well. Larrabee also raised an issue not addressed by the Capital Plan- potentially raising the Bayonne Bridge (crossing the entrance to Newark Bay) from its present air-draft of 151’, to 187’, at a cost estimated to be around $750 Million. “There is no clear revenue stream from roadways, we need to figure out how we can pay.” “The rail business is self supporting, with the tariff for lift fees, and it may be a model for supporting roadway projects.” He hints that the answer may come from facility leases with a throughput component, a feature in one ground-lease presently, and points out that: “In 2008, a throughput revenue stream kicks in, for two other leases we have.” Regarding the Bayonne Bridge, “we’re grappling with funding approaches.” Larrabee told PS that ship designs vary- “in fact some 8,000 teu vessels that will be calling here <in Suez trades and in Asia trades after the Panama Canal widening> can fit under the bridge,” he said. But he added: “…to be honest, we don’t see a fix to the bridge in the next 10 -15 years.” Larrabee, whose Coast Guard career including three years as Captain of the Port in New York, necessarily takes a long term view. As our conversation would down, he touched on the Port Inland Distribution Network (PIDN) and the PANYNJ’s attempts to jump- start a barge service to draw containers from the hinterland, in upstate New York, down to the PANYNJ’s terminals. He says: “People with cargo, they were willing to participate,” but he said that “..the shipping lines wanted to see a long term commitment- they would have needed a rearrange the way they move land-side cargo. They were not excited about it.” Larrabee talked about the environmental benefits of the barge link, now terminated, and is quick to add that “we have gone forward with the rail side of the program- with links to Buffalo (upstate New York) and Worcester (eastern Massachusetts) set to open soon.” And, putting his planner hat on, he told PS, “…the rail links get back to our concept of moving more cargo, being more productive.” “Portions of the PIDN funding were based on congestion mitigation”, Larrabee says, “..everything we have talked about reflects elements of a broader environmental strategy. For example, on dredging, every cubic yard of material pulled out will be used beneficially. We’ve also mitigated 100% of the emissions from the dredges for the life of the project.” But, at the end of the day, it is pragmatism of Rick Larrabee and his team that drives the PANYNJ’s port activities. “All of our projects are analyzed for economics, and then in terms of their environmental impacts. When we renovated our terminals, we brought in new technology and reduced emissions (from yard equipment) by 30%- even though cargo is growing by 25% during the period. But, even on the environmental side of the equation, we are very sensitive about getting the most benefit for our dollars,” he told PS. Like land alongside the quay, the dollars are scarce.
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