Attendees at the March 31 Pulse of the Ports meeting in Long Beach saw a stark demonstration of what terminal operators believe is the cause of congestion at the port complex. In a photo taken at 9 a.m. at an SSA Marine terminal, there was not a truck in sight. A photo taken at 4 p.m. showed trucks lined up a mile long.
“This is a problem,” said Ed DeNike, SSA Marine’s chief operating officer. If shippers sent more trucks to the harbor during slack periods, congestion would dissipate and terminals could better afford the cost of paying longshoremen about $1,000 a day in wages and benefits. “We can’t man up for 16 hours a day with all of those slow periods,” DeNike said.
The problem of trucks bunching up at certain times of the day is partly due to the PierPass program that encourages night and weekend calls in the harbor. PierPass assesses a $100-per-container fee from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. when traffic is normally the heaviest. PierPass has been a startling success in pushing traffic to nights and weekends, with more than 50 percent of the truck visits now being made during off-peak gates.
Fred Johring, president of Golden State Express, has his own view on what causes terminal congestion. Drivers for the Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based drayage carrier had just missed 13 loads at what is considered one of several “bad” terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach. The drivers waited in line for two hours, and when they got to the gate, they were told the section of the terminal that held their containers was closed to traffic. “It’s a management issue,” he said.
A study released in mid-April by a truck turn-time stakeholders group compiled statistics of thousands of truck visits over a six-month period during the 2010 peak season. The numbers confirm the suspicions of truckers and terminal operators.
Josh Owen, president of Ability/Tri-Modal and co-chairman of the stakeholders group, believes the report will lead to meaningful changes in the harbor because truckers and terminal operators will deal with the same facts.
Bruce Wargo, president of the extended gates program PierPass Inc. and a co-chair of the stakeholder’s group, said the data is available for developing solutions. “There are specific numbers that highlight where the problems are. Now the stakeholders group can discuss the issues intelligently,” he said.
The data, gathered by using GPS tracking devices on trucks calling at the ports from May through October 2010, show that in a macro sense the turn times are not as horrible as some truckers believe.
About 27 percent of the truck visits lasted less than 30 minutes, and 58 percent took less than one hour, which truckers consider acceptable turn times. About 75 percent of the visits took 90 minutes, and 86 percent of the visits were completed in less than two hours. That isn’t great, but it could work if most drivers are able to average the three trips a day they need to cover their expenses and earn a profit.
“The study shows that most truck visits are being handled in an efficient and timely manner and that there is plenty of capacity in the ports,” Wargo said.
Trucking executives generally disagree with that conclusion. The study, Johring said, also shows 12 percent of the visits take two to four hours, a financially lethal wait for those unfortunate drivers.
The study shows three terminals account for a disproportionate share of the unacceptably long turn times. The bad terminals hosted 10 percent of the truck visits, but accounted for 28 percent of the turn times exceeding four hours.
By contrast, two terminals consistently turned in stellar performances. They handled 25 percent of the truck visits, and accounted for only 2 percent of the long visits.
Some trucking companies likewise fall into the bad-performer category. Terminal operators say trucking companies with poor records consistently transmit late or inaccurate documentation, resulting in an immediate trip to the “trouble window” and a lengthy wait.
Underperforming terminals admit they must share some of the blame with their ocean carrier tenants and the cargo interests they serve. Some importers and exporters are interested only in price, shipping with carriers that charge the lowest rates; in turn, those carriers pay for the minimum level of service a terminal offers.
The Waterfront Coalition, a national organization that works with shippers to improve marine terminal performance, said the problem for cargo interests, especially smaller shippers, is that they don’t know the right questions to ask of ocean carriers about the performance of their terminal operators.
“Sophisticated shippers know where the problems are and the questions to ask,” said Robin Lanier, executive director of the Waterfront Coalition. A Transportation Research Board study of port operations in Los Angeles-Long Beach, New York-New Jersey and Houston is scheduled for release this month. The coalition plans to use the study to identify key problem areas and develop solutions, she said.
The unintended consequence of the PierPass traffic-mitigation fee is that many shippers, who are responsible for paying the fee, direct truckers to move freight in the off-peak hours. Truckers begin lining up at the terminals around 4 p.m., and they wait until the fee is waived at 6 p.m.
The stakeholder group realizes this is a problem, Owen said, and he believes PierPass is willing to adjust the fee in some way to discourage bunching of trucks in late afternoon.
He said he’s tired of hearing that truckers must learn to live with some conditions that cause congestion. “I don’t want to live with it,” he said
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.