Oft-Troubled Rochester Port Returning Now to Prominence

Wed May 04, 2005 - Northeast Edition
Laurie Mercer

Construction on the Port of Rochester terminal building got caught in the ripple effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on this country. Not only is it this country’s first international port of entry built since 9/11, it’s also the first new border crossing established in 40 years.

When new regulations were introduced by a governing organization of what was once U.S. Customs & Immigration and the new group called Homeland Security, the terminal project had already begun. Back to the drawing board for architects, construction people and city officials because of the need for increased security.

And yet, the building never stopped. David H. Newton, project manager of LeCesse, the Rochester-based construction company that served as construction manager of the 55,000-sq.-ft. ferry terminal, said, “While the original design met existing U.S. Customs & Immigration requirements, significant changes, especially the layout of the building, followed when Customs & Immigration and Homeland Security merged.”

The Port of Rochester terminal was being built for arrivals and departures on the Spirit of Ontario — Rochester’s fast ferry — or known by its nickname, The Breeze. Modern ferry service on Lake Ontario was being introduced to link Rochester and Toronto, Canada, during excursions to be run several times a day. The new Port of Rochester terminal building would be a border crossing, with customs as well as a passenger center, and a lakeside destination in itself.

Following 9/11, one key departure from the work in progress was the complete and total prevention of any co-mingling of arriving and departing passengers —including visual contact. It is, in fact, technically impossible to simultaneously have pedestrians in the departure and arrival zones because of sophisticated controls in all access areas.

Newton said that customs procedures on both sides of the lake are exactly the same as what passengers driving across the border from Canada experience. There are holding cells in the customs area for people when entry to the United States is denied.

Rough Waters for the Ferry

The ferry project, which was part of a vision of returning the Port of Rochester to its former prominence as a lakeside destination, has been anything but breezy. Being a public project it has been intensely scrutinized by the media.

Early on in the ferry’s service, arriving Canadian passengers seemed a little perplexed, but pleased, when they arrived at the terminal, following the just over two-hour ride, and were treated like celebrities by hosts of television reporters with anxious questions.

Beginning with high hopes, the 750-passenger, 220-car boat was built in Australia and cost approximately $42.5 million. At 284 ft. long, 78 ft. wide and approximately five stories high, the boat dwarfs the terminal building.

The vessel took an expensive bump into a dock in New York City on her way to Rochester. More bad news came when it blew an engine requiring a million dollar modification. Because of stricter regulations due to 9/11, trucks were not allowed on board. Customs fees and the need for registered pilots helped swamp the precarious game plan. The terminal on the Canadian side was little more than a temporary tent.

After just 80 days in service, The Canadian American Transportation Systems (CATS), the ferry’s operating company, declared itself bankrupt. At that point in the ferry’s voyage, federal marshals were the only people allowed on board. Maritime liens against CATS included the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots’ Association; the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority; MTU Friedrichsahafen GmbH, which built the engines; other mortgage holders; and companies that repaired the boat.

As of early March, claims in the case against CATS totaled roughly $43.1 million, not including interest, which continued to accrue at varying rates on some $39 million in mortgage debt according to the Rochester Business Journal.

Fast forward: On Feb. 28, 2005, the gavel fell at a foreclosure auction that took only minutes in downtown Rochester’s Federal Building. In just a few tense moments the City of Rochester bought the boat (sticker price last summer was $42.5 million) with a bid of $32 million. The Export Finance and Insurance Corp. (EFIC), an arm of the Australian government, offered a $40 million line of credit to the city to help it buy the ship.

In a letter to the editor of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle a reader complained that the bidding for the ferry began at $29,635,400 and was supposed to go up in increments of $10,000. Without hesitation the city bid $32 million for the second and winning bid.

“I’m not a math major,” he wrote, “but I’m thinking the bidding should have gone to $29,645,400.”

“Years from now, maybe after I’m dead and certainly long after I’m gone from this office, it will become clear that we weren’t smoking dope at the time we proposed this deal” said Mayor Johnson in a subsequent Rochester Business Journal interview. The quote accurately captures the intricate and complicated public relations nightmare that plagued the boat from the bon voyage.

All of the ferryboat drama has also overshadowed a truly remarkable construction project represented in the Port of Rochester terminal.

Construction of the First New Border Crossing in 40 Years

The Port of Rochester Terminal, open to the public seven days a week, skillfully weds an existing, circa early 1900s brick warehouse with today’s demands for security, crowd control, customs, entertainment, automobile traffic, pedestrians, travelers and casual tourists who tend to wander around aimlessly, drawn by Lake Ontario, local ambience, fast food and shops. Due to commerce and vendors roasting nuts and cooking burgers, the building smells like a circus midway.

LeCesse took only 12 months to complete the $16-million terminal construction project paid for by the city. The company began by gutting the existing warehouse, pulling floor slabs and removing the roof. In the spirit of the warehouse-to-port terminal resurrection, the terminal design emphasized restoration, rather than replacement. The interior still feels like a high-ceilinged century-old warehouse. Outdoors, the terminal is located at the mouth of the Genesee River where it flows into Lake Ontario and is just across the river from the Rochester Yacht Club.

Visitors can enjoy the 55,000-sq.-ft. building with its original columns, and for the most part, original brickwork. The inside public space is just as practical as, but a lot more appealing than, an airport. Upstairs are offices and a nightclub that has never been used.

Customs areas look identical all over the world, and this border crossing is no exception. It has holding cells if someone is refused entry. For new construction, look to the long passageway passengers must walk to reach the gangplank. Because this is a walkway and not a sitting area, costs for air conditioning are eliminated by using a louvered window system to achieve a comfortable temperature.

Almost up to the moment that the first “black-tie-affair” was held to launch the ferry’s service, the LeCesse people (superintendent, project manager and a secretary) worked on site full time in the field office, where they also held weekly construction meetings. A project like this one with so many high-profile and heavily invested players demands results and accepts no apologies in the face of tight deadlines. Consultants with specialized skills were brought in to solve unusual challenges — for example, the need for a fueling station for the enormous ship.

Newton said the team managed to keep both oars in the water by using the following formula: weekly meetings; everybody attending who has a stake in the project; written agendas to focus discussion; create a clear understanding of ball in court items; dates for items requiring decisions; team members being held accountable. Computerization allowed for quick distribution of the meeting minutes and other information quickly.

The building’s warranty isn’t yet up, so Newton is still visiting the new terminal on a regular basis and helping maintain a smooth transition of ownership from CATS to the City of Rochester. He said it feels good to be involved in constructing something that means so much to so many people.

Past, present and future, the new Port of Rochester terminal is home to the Rochester fast ferry; the Spirit of Ontario really is a ship of dreams. CEG