The Port of New York and New Jersey and its marine terminal operators did yeoman work in quickly reopening the port after Hurricane Sandy, but that turned out to be only half the battle.
Terminals struggled for three weeks to clear the backlog of cargo disrupted by the Oct. 28 storm, which flooded terminals, damaged trucks, sidelined thousands of chassis and frayed nerves of truckers and others around the port.
Truckers endured hours-long delays and costs they had to pass on to customers. Drayage operators complained that terminal operators refused to waive charges for demurrage on containers stuck inside terminals or detention for boxes that truckers couldn’t return to terminals.
Jeff Bader, president of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, said the association may seek New Jersey legislation to prohibit marine terminals from charging detention and demurrage when congestion prevents prompt pickups and deliveries. The association unsuccessfully sought similar legislation several years ago.
After the port reopened following a nearly weeklong shutdown, some terminal operators waived demurrage fees for a day or two. But citing their own added expenses, they soon resumed normal practices.
Standard free-time storage at terminals is four days, after which demurrage is assessed. The trucker must pay the demurrage in order to take the container from the terminal, and then try to recoup the costs from the cargo interests, some of which may balk at paying.
“The terminals are capitalizing on everybody else’s misfortune, and trying to make it up on the backs of the truckers, as usual,” Tom Heimgartner, president of Best Transportation, said in mid-November. “We should be charging them. It’s not our fault we can’t pick up the cargo. It’s their fault they can’t deliver it. There simply aren’t enough chassis available.”
Thousands of chassis in and around the port were flooded by saltwater and had to be taken out of service to drain and clean their hubs and replace lubricating fluids, a process requiring several hours.
Chassis weren’t all that was in short supply. An estimated 25 percent of drayage trucks in the port sustained storm damage, Bader said.
Tom Adamski, CEO of Cross Point Transport, said prices for 2003-08 model truck tractors in the New York-New Jersey area jumped by $5,000 to $15,000 after the storm. He said some truckers were shopping for used equipment in neighboring states.
Port terminals extended their hours and kept gates open on Veterans Day and on Saturdays. However, they were battling a cargo backlog caused by delayed ships and detours of cargo to Norfolk, Baltimore and Halifax. Several carriers declared force majeure, forcing shippers to pay extra for delivery of diverted cargo.
Bader praised the port authority for working with companies to quickly clear storm damage and reopen terminals after Sandy. “The port authority did an outstanding job of reopening the port and keeping customers informed,” he said. “Everyone pulled together.”
But after ship lines resisted extending free time for containers, and terminals wouldn’t “budge an inch” on demurrage, he said truckers were forced to pass the costs to customers, who aren’t happy about it. “It’s a black eye for the port,” he said.
Truckers said their thin margins don’t allow them to absorb demurrage costs. “If an importer has $100,000 worth of cargo in a box, an extra $200 is a relatively small figure,” Heimgartner said. “For a steamship line charging $4,000 or $5,000 for the box, it’s a bigger percentage. For a trucker being paid $200 to $300 to pick up a load, $200 is a very big figure.”