Shippers Look to Alleviate Port Jams

Brent Felgner, Staff Staff, October 17, 2005

New York — The global supply chain is under a siege caused by increasing volumes — particularly through the nation's ports — pushing the limits of infrastructure, business practices, forecasting and planning, according to The Waterfront Coalition, a private group of shippers.

“You're trying to move an ever-increasing amount of trade through these ports that have no more room to grow, land-wise, and you're trying to do it all from 9-to-5. And it's just not working,” said Robin Lanier, executive director of the association.

With port traffic forecast to double over the next 10 years, beginning those changes now is critical, Lanier said. The fix, he said, lies in a public-private partnership to address the congestion along with the infrastructure needs of the entire marine container transportation system. The issues need to be part of a larger national policy, under the U.S. Department of Transportation addressing the movement of goods, according to Lanier.

There have already been a series of logistical near disasters, particularly on the West Coast, Lanier pointed out, ranging from the port strike in 2002 to congestion during the second half of last year.

In a policy white paper released last spring, the Coalition — consisting of retailers, manufacturers and wholesalers that import and export — called for development of a comprehensive national logistics policy.

“If the country has no policy that is directing national investment into goods movement, we're going to be in a lot of trouble,” Lanier said. “We have infrastructure that's crumbling in big cities and big cities are where we need to get the freight.

“(Secretary of Transportation Norman) Minetta understands this. He understands this needs to be done.”

Among the recommendations in the coalition's policy initiative are:

  • Make harbor trucking a profitable business. Independent owner-operators are struggling to earn a living, which is creating a driver shortage at a time when imports are skyrocketing. Addressing road congestion and terminal efficiency will go a long way toward increasing the number of daily trips harbor truckers need to improve the economics that will avert a further shortage of drivers.

  • Operate ports during extended hours. Vessels are loaded and offloaded 24 hours daily, but truck-borne cargo is limited to typical business hours.

  • Develop regional and national chassis pools. Containers are moved on intermodal chassis usually owned by ocean carriers and terminals. Developing a pool approach would reduce wasted time moving the chassis instead of moving the cargo they carry.

  • Managing “free time” more efficiently — the amount of time cargo is permitted to sit on the piers unmoved. As volume increases, free time adds to port congestion.

  • Spreading out vessel sailings and arrivals in the trans-Pacific trade to make maximum use of terminal capacity. Higher capacity container ships will only exacerbate the situation. However, spreading out those sailings will require changes in production schedules at Asian factories.

  • Developing “best practices” for measuring capacity and productivity at the nation's ports and terminals.

The Coalition is also urging more sailings to alternate ports on the West Coast, with greater utilization of East and Gulf Coast ports. That will require greater use of the Suez Canal and an expansion of the Panama Canal.

It also urged an expansion of intermodal rail capacity with road and bridge improvements in and around U.S. ports.

“We're finding that the terminals have no metrics — no one knows what their productivity is or should be,” Lanier said. “We have this issue of how much capacity do we have, how productive is it and what are the best practices? These are all business practice issues that need to be addressed.”

The Coalition has identified multiple highway and rail projects it deems essential, among them: improving the interchanges between eastern and western railroads in Chicago and New Orleans; improving rail capacity out of the Pacific Northwest and Southwest; and a listing of intermodal “port connector” highway projects needed to address congestion specifically around the nation's seaports.

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