Early in the morning of the last day of 2015, the MV Benjamin Franklin steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge, steered past Alcatraz, passed under the Bay Bridge just west of Yerba Buena Island, and, escorted by four tugboats and three news helicopters, docked at the Port of Oakland.
For a number of reasons, the ship’s arrival in the Bay Area is a very big deal.
First is the matter of its size. Owned by the French shipping line CMA CGM, the Franklin is the largest ship ever to tie up in a North American harbor.
It is 200 feet longer than the Gerald R. Ford, the U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. It is half-again longer than San Francisco’s Transamerica Building is tall. The ship is 177 feet wide. By comparison, a typical eight-lane freeway built by Caltrans is only 132 feet across.
The Franklin can carry up to 18,000 20-foot shipping containers, nearly 30 percent more than the largest ships currently serving America’s West Coast ports. The largest vessel an East Coast port has yet to see had a capacity of a mere 10,000 containers.
Ships the size of the Franklin are much too big to pass through the Panama Canal, not even through the expanded set of locks due to open later this year.
No less impressive are the potential economic benefits to the Port of Oakland and to businesses, agriculture exporters and consumers in the Central Valley and throughout the nation. The port, which directly supports an estimated 65,000 jobs in Northern California, is the primary point of departure for exports of California wines, fruits, nuts and dairy products.
At the same time, the port is one of the nation’s top gateways for a wide range of imported goods destined for retail stores and factory floors. In 2014, $42.9 billion in merchandise was shipped through the port.
The Franklin’s inaugural visit to Oakland is part of a trial run that had already seen the huge vessel call at the Port of Los Angeles.
The French shipping line that owns the Franklin says the ship will be assigned to regular service between China and the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.
The decision to deploy the Franklin on that particular route represents a strong vote of confidence by a major shipping line in the ability of California’s ports to remain highly efficient gateways for America’s foreign trade. Last winter, there was ample doubt about the ports’ competitiveness.
At a time when port operations up and down the West Coast were hamstrung by a labor dispute and a series of logistical snafus, cargo owners seemed poised to abandon Pacific Coast ports in favor of routing shipments to ports in Canada or Mexico, or sending cargo via the expanded Panama Canal to ports along the East and Gulf Coasts.
The prospect that California’s ports might see sharply lower volumes of container traffic endangered not just the ports’ economic viability but also threatened the jobs of the tens of thousands of Californians directly engaged in transporting freight between the state’s seaports and markets throughout North America.
Needless to say, the decision by CMA CGM to assign its newest mega-ship to the China-California trade is a very positive development for the state’s three major seaports and those whose livelihoods depend on them.
For importers and exporters, ships of this size offer unprecedented economies of scale which should translate into lower rates for transporting containers laden with consumer goods or industrial components across the Pacific.
Among those who stand to gain most from lower shipping rates are the agricultural exporters who have come to depend heavily on the Port of Oakland to move goods to overseas customers. In 2014, for example, the port handled over 57 percent of the nation’s seaborne exports of fresh fruits and nuts, products that chiefly come from California farms.
By adding capacity to westbound trade across the Pacific, the Franklin should help keep shipping costs low for the Central Valley’s food exporters.
The Franklin also brings important environmental benefits. The ship, which was delivered to its Marseilles-based owners four weeks ago, incorporates the latest propulsion and hull technologies. It is one of a fast-growing number of ultra-large container ships specifically designed to address concerns about climate change and more localized demands for improved air quality.
These mega-ships not only consume less fuel, they also burn fuel with lower sulfur content. And, by reducing the number of ships needed to transport goods between Asia and California, they promise to lessen oceanic trade’s environmental impact on a state that is the nation’s preeminent maritime trade gateway.
The Benjamin Franklin thus embodies the sort of advancements in transportation technology that Gov. Jerry Brown encouraged in an executive order issued in July in which he professed his support for technologies “that enable greater transportation efficiency while reducing community and environmental impacts.”
Jock O’Connell is a Sacramento-based international trade economist affiliated with Beacon Economics.