The Port of Houston authority announced its new policy on container weights, as well as container throughput for the the first quarter and developments with ongoing infrastructure improvement projects.
The new policy is in line with many other ports as the deadline approaches for complying with an amendment to the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea convention.
The updated rule is designed to address ocean carrier concerns about containers that have incorrect weights listed on their shipping documents, either due to deliberate efforts to avoid paying overweight fees or because the weight of the contents was estimated. Overweight boxes can potentially undermine stowage plans, which are created to help balance vessels for stability and structural support. In addition to potentially compromising safe operations at sea, heavy boxes pose an extra danger for longshoremen at ports because they sometimes can fall from the grip of cargo handling equipment.
Shippers are supposed to share the weight with their ocean carrier, which in turn will provide the information to the terminal operator. The verified gross mass (VGM) data can be gathered by weighing the entire container and its contents, or by weighing the contents and dunnage, and adding them to the tare weight stenciled on the side of each container.
The extra administrative work, IT processes and liability issues associated with the change have many exporters, particularly in the agricultural community, up in arms. Their preference is to provide the weight of the contents and let the carriers plug in the weight of their own boxes.
So far, the Seagirt Terminal at the Port of Baltimore, operated by Ports America, is the only known U.S. facility that has said it will accept boxes without a VGM. Ports America is offering to weigh the boxes on its own scales or let shippers pick up the box, take it to a third-party scale and return it to the yard.
Port of Charleston has scales that it uses to routinely weigh export loads, and officials say they are willing to provide the info to shippers if requested.
Meanwhile, container volumes at the Port of Houston dipped 2.4 percent in March to 182,204 TEUs and were down 3 percent for the first quarter to 510,639 TEUs, the port authority said.
The growth figures, however, are in comparison to the first quarter of 2015, which represented the strongest quarter in Houston’s history. The port authority said it has retained a substantial portion of the business that was diverted from the West Coast last year when ports were overcrowded due to a union labor dispute and work slowdown.
Bulk cargo increased by 379,000 tons, or 19 percent, due to a rise in grains and pet coke exports. Automobile tonnage also increased.
The port authority said overall first quarter revenues declined about 5 percent to $71 million due to a drop in steel imports.
Houston’s diversified lines of business have helped it weather the downturn in the oil sector, Executive Director Roger Guenther said during Wednesday’s Port Commission meeting.
The container business is expected to benefit with the May 2 start of a new 2M Alliance service between Asia and the U.S. Gulf operated by Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co. that will stop in Houston, as well as Mobile, Ala., and Miami.
The port authority is moving ahead with several infrastructure initiatives (detailed in the April American Shipper magazine feature “The Gulf Option”), including deepening the approach channels to the 45-foot Houston Ship Channel.
Guenther said that the port authority this month began its support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ initial work on the deepening feasibility study. It is sharing in the estimated $10 million study cost and will host two public meetings to inform the public and receive comments about the project.
Landside improvements in the near future include a 47-acre expansion of a container yard at the Bayport Terminal and that construction of a rail spur at Bayport is scheduled to begin in the fourth quarter.
The Port Commission also awarded a $35 million contract to build another wharf at Bayport and a $10 million contract to upgrade electric power to all dock cranes at the Barbours Cut Terminal.