U.S. Ports See Costly Delays as Cargo Ships, Volumes Grow
Problem shows how global trade logistics are falling out of sync
But on his way recently to pick up a load of bedding, Albert Newcomb was stalled for two hours before his rig could make it through a mile-long line to one of the port’s terminals. Once inside, the 43-year-old independent truck driver hit a traffic jam 13 lanes wide and 10 trucks deep. By the time he left with his load, he had waited for a total of eight hours. “It’s ridiculous,” he said, as he sat in his truck idling outside the gates. “It’s almost to the point where you want to quit.”
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Such congestion is becoming increasingly common at major U.S. ports—a problem that could have profound implications for the $900 billion worth of goods transported to and from the U.S. each year by container ships.
The slow movement of imports and exports illustrates how the logistics of global trade have fallen terribly out of sync. Ocean carriers are deploying progressively bigger vessels. Some would be taller than the Empire State Building if stood on end. They can carry more than twice as much cargo as their predecessors, and are more fuel-efficient than smaller vessels. To ensure they travel as full as possible, shipping lines have formed alliances to combine their loads.
But the floating behemoths are overwhelming many U.S. ports that weren’t built to handle such supersize ships. Of the 10 busiest U.S. ports by container volume, as calculated by the American Association of Port Authorities, at least seven are grappling regularly with congestion.
In Newark, N.J., a shortage of chassis—the undercarriages used to haul containers off the port by truck—is contributing to miles-long lines. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, the arrival of giant vessels and the growth of shipping alliances has caused terminal gridlock for months, leaving ships stuck offshore waiting to unload. That situation was exacerbated by a labor dispute at West Coast ports that was resolved in February.
The big ships “have stressed the infrastructure to the breaking point,” says Jock O’Connell, an international trade adviser at Beacon Economics LLC in Sacramento, Calif. There needs to be “a concerted effort to rethink and redesign the ports to accommodate these larger vessels and the additional cargo they’re generating,” he says.
It is only likely to get worse. Container volume at U.S. ports has increased steadily since the recession, hitting all-time highs in 2014 at many East Coast terminals. Between 2010 and 2040, the volume of the U.S.’s container trade with Northeast Asia—which accounts for the majority of the U.S.’s overall container trade—is projected to more than triple, according to a 2013 Department of Transportation study.
West Coast ports already receive megaships bearing as many as 14,000 containers traveling from Asia across the Pacific Ocean, while East Coast ones are receiving 10,000-container vessels from Asia through the Suez Canal. That volume will only grow when expansion of the Panama Canal is completed next year. The widened, deeper canal will allow ships carrying as many as 13,000 containers to travel en route to the East Coast, compared with ships hauling 5,000 containers today.
The cost of port congestion to retailers, meanwhile, is expected to climb—and ultimately be passed along to consumers.
Lower fuel costs could help offset congestion costs, but whether carriers will pass along such reductions to customers is unclear, analysts say.
Audax Transportation hauls goods ranging from car engines for Ford Motor Co. to frozen chicken parts for Perdue Farms. Bottlenecks at the Port of Virginia have reduced the amount of goods its truck drivers can move in a day by 50% in the past year, says Ed O’Callaghan, the firm’s president and an agent of trucking company Century Express in Norfolk, Va. To make up for lost revenue, his company has raised prices for customers by about 35%.
“It is not enjoyable to approach shippers who have supported you over the years with such increases,” Mr. O’Callaghan says. Because congestion has limited the number of containers the company can move, Mr. O’Callaghan has had to drop some 20 clients in the past year, including a tobacco exporter and furniture importers.
Port congestion has also made it difficult for home-goods importer Hooker Furniture to gauge the staff it needs to handle the dressers, dining tables and sofas it imports from Asia, says logistics coordinator Kimberly Clark. “One day, we could be planning for 15 containers, and we may only get six” because of shipping delays, she says. Another day, a flood of containers could arrive, forcing the Martinsville, Va., company to pay workers overtime or bring in temps.
The backups have “put a lot of pressure on everybody,” says Port of Virginia spokesman Joe Harris. “We definitely regret” such situations, he adds. To alleviate congestion, the port in recent weeks has extended operating hours and added chassis and container-handling equipment.
The problem didn’t happen overnight. Investment by federal, state and local governments in U.S. ports and surrounding infrastructure—such as roads and rail lines—mostly dried up during the recession. And declining cargo volumes squeezed ports’ finances, limiting their ability to make significant investments in bigger cranes and other improvements, says John Martin, a maritime economist at Martin Associates in Lancaster, Pa.
Now, ports are scrambling to catch up. They lag some foreign counterparts, which rely on unmanned cargo-handling machines to efficiently move, stack and retrieve containers, Mr. Martin says.
Journal of Commerce data on port productivity in the first half of 2014 showed that the world’s most efficient port was Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates. It managed to perform an average of 138 container moves—loading, unloading or repositioning—per ship per hour. The Port of Los Angeles—the U.S.’s most efficient port at the time—had only 80 container moves per ship. One difference between the two: Jebel Ali has invested heavily in automation and technology to serve megaships, including $850 million in a new container terminal unveiled last year.
The White House has provided special infrastructure grants worth $479 million for 38 port-related projects in recent years. President Barack Obama has visited Miami, Wilmington, Del., and other cities to promote more investment in the nation’s ports. The Federal Maritime Commission has made resolving port congestion one of the agency’s top priorities. But it lacks budgetary authority, which rests with Congress.
In the U.S., a “long-term lack of investment and lack of focus” has inhibited modernization, says Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “We are woefully positioned to deal with continued growth in the 21st century.”
Unlike port authorities in cities such as Los Angeles and New York that are landlords and lease their multiple terminals to private companies, the Georgia Ports Authority owns and operates the sole terminal at the Savannah port. That gives it control over capital expenditures and growth plans.
To prepare for larger ships, the Savannah port says it started investing a decade ago in upgrades. Recent improvements include the tallest available cranes and a state-of-the-art computer system that tracks in real time the location of containers, speeding their retrieval for trucks. In 2007, it helped launch the South Atlantic Chassis Pool, a collection of about 50,000 chassis shared by various Southeastern ports and rail lines. Savannah is now building out undeveloped property inland to store empty containers, freeing up more space for cargo near the dock.
Others are following Savannah’s lead. Chassis companies are trying to relieve congestion in New York and Los Angeles by creating pools similar to the one used in Savannah, says Keith Lovetro, president of chassis-leasing company TRAC Intermodal.
The challenges in the U.S. are on display at the Port of Virginia, which has two main container terminals, in Portsmouth and Norfolk, bustling with activity as towering cranes unload ships and enormous vehicles pile containers in stacks. Infrastructure investment at the port suffered during the recession as well as a two-year period of uncertainty, ending in 2013, when the state weighed privatizing it. But the bigger ships began arriving in 2011—years earlier than expected, says Mr. Harris, the spokesman.
Rising container volume along with backups caused by a spate of winter storms pushed the Portsmouth terminal, called Virginia International Gateway, beyond capacity for weeks in March, Mr. Harris says. Crews repeatedly worked late into the night to clear backlogs, only to have them “gobbled up by a single ship,” he adds.
“If you had more of those strads working, you would have lower turn times” for trucks, says Bill Jackson, chairman of RJR Elite Trucking in Norfolk.
The terminal also gets so crammed with containers that dockworkers need to move them around frequently to retrieve the right ones, leading some to be misplaced, he says. “We’ve had drivers sitting in line five to six hours waiting for them to find the container they want,” Mr. Jackson says.
Every month, he says, he loses several drivers fed up with the congestion—a common occurrence at ports across the country. Many truckers are independent operators, meaning they only make money when they complete a delivery. These days, they’re lucky to make two hauls a day, compared with four or five several years ago. The resulting shortage is contributing to increased freight costs.
John Reinhart, chief executive of the Virginia Port Authority, which operates the Port of Virginia terminals, says truckers’ complaints are justified. But “we have limited resources,” says Mr. Reinhart, who took the helm last year amid pressure from the state to make the port profitable.
He says upgrades, including a new computer-operating system and additional cargo-handling vehicles, have improved productivity. And a coming GPS-like system to track individual containers will make retrieving them easier.
To tackle congestion issues in New York and New Jersey, a port authority task force recommended several measures, such as more flexible hours for gate operations and building more warehouse space to store imports away from docks. Port operators and others are now trying to implement those ideas. In the last decade, the port authority has spent $2.7 billion in upgrades at the port. Another $1.3 billion is being used to raise the Bayonne Bridge so that megaships can pass underneath.
Congestion relief can’t come soon enough for Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, which represents some of the nation’s largest retailers. “We can’t have U.S. ports acting as a barrier to trade,” he says. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”