Rocket Science

If we can put a man on the moon, why’s it so hard to fix the congestion at the Port of New York and New Jersey?

It was a good question from a frustrated shipper, and two answers quickly come to mind.

First, the 1960s space program had a virtually unlimited budget. Not so for shipping. Almost every sector of the industry is under financial pressure, and there’s not a lot of money to throw at problems. Everyone’s trying to squeeze out costs or push them onto someone else.

Second, and possibly more important, the drive to put man on the moon had a clear goal and a united effort to achieve it. Once the objective was fixed, success was just a matter of time and technology.

Ship lines, terminals, truckers and labor all grasp the big picture at the East Coast’s largest port. They recognize that New York-New Jersey must become more efficient in order to compete for inland intermodal cargo. But when it comes to details, these diverse interests have a habit of talking past each other.

Container lines want their ships worked as quickly and cheaply as possible. Terminals worry about return on investment for their owners. Motor carriers want to keep their trucks moving and to minimize costs. The International Longshoremen’s Association wants to protect its jobs, pay and jurisdiction.

Ignored in the bickering are the most important stakeholders: the cargo interests that ultimately pay the bills. Supply chain managers don’t care much about port service providers’ problems. What they want is an efficient gateway for cargo.

The consensus is that New York-New Jersey will return to normal by next month. And despite this summer’s chaos, the port’s long-term prospects are brightening. The Bayonne Bridge roadway is expected to be raised to larger ships by 2015. Work is near completion on dredging of 50-foot channels, improved road connections, and $600 million in intermodal rail terminals.

Global Terminal soon will have the East Coast’s most technologically advanced terminal. Port Newark Container Terminal is about to start $500 million in improvements. Even Maher Terminals’ new operating system was an investment in growth. It had a rough start, but they’ll eventually get it right.

Infrastructure, however, only takes you so far. This summer’s problems make it clear that the port’s often-warring factions must work together for the port’s overall good. The new ILA contract is a start. So are the New York Shipping Association’s plans to hire more longshore workers.

Recent problems have given new urgency to meetings by terminals, truckers, the NYSA and the port authority. Their broad agenda includes steps such as longer gate hours and operating metrics that will allow performance to be measured and managed.

This improved communication is a good sign, but we shouldn’t expect miracles. This may not be rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If it were, they’d have done it years ago.   

Contact Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/JosephBonney.

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