Peter Tirschwell: U.S. port congestion a growing problem

Peter Tirschwell: U.S. port congestion a growing problem

What happened last week at the Port of Savannah - where non-union harbor truckers brought a major U.S. seaport to a standstill with a two-day walkout - shows how far the escalating problem of port congestion in the United States is from being resolved.

The Savannah walkout did not occur out of the blue. Large volumes of containerized cargo were diverted to the port and others on the East Coast in the aftermath of the 10-day lock-out of West Coast dockworkers last fall. Savannah's import volumes in December were 90 percent above year-earlier levels, and the port received surprise visits in November and December from 25 "sweeper" ships - vessels put temporarily into rotation to handle excess cargo without destination ports being notified.

But though arising out of extraordinary circumstances, the problem at Savannah is not isolated. Tensions surrounding harbor truckers have been building for years as imported consumer goods from Asia have become a major force in the U.S. economy. Typically independent contractors who own their own trucks, harbor truckers work by the job, not the hour, and thus watch their already meager incomes dwindle when they wait for hours to get into a marine terminal to pick up a load. That was what triggered the Savannah walkout, but it's equally (and more persistently) true at other ports, especially Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey. Surges of cargo from offloading ships, limited gate hours and sometimes inefficient terminal operations conspire to cause chronic truck backups and ultimately delays in moving time-sensitive cargo through the logistics chain. It's no wonder the Teamsters see harbor trucking as ripe for unionization, despite the problematic obstacle of drivers' status as independent contractors as opposed to employees.

Making this issue more intractable is the fact that government intervention hasn't come close to solving the problem. The Transportation Department skirted the fringes of the issue with its Marine Transportation System initiative, but failed to produce any leadership in this area. If this year's multi-billion dollar T-21 highway reauthorization produces any activity in the port area, it will be to obtain more funding for asphalt connectors between port roads and interstate highways, a long-term antidote to port congestion at best.

New York-New Jersey truckers were desperate enough to seek relief from the Federal Maritime Commission, claiming that terminal policies in the port violate the 1984 Shipping Act, but there is no indication that will lead to progress. The best shot the government has in intervening is in California, where a law will take effect in July encouraging marine terminals to establish trucker appointment systems or face the prospect of a $250 fine for every truck forced to wait outside a terminal for more than a half hour.

"It's hard to see how a government response will improve efficiency at the ports," said Robin Lanier, executive director of the Waterfront Coalition, a group that represents many of the largest U.S. importers, who have become increasingly exasperated with delays at U.S. seaports.

The truth is that congestion issues are best resolved locally, through dialogue and effort among the principal parties involved, including marine terminals, truckers, logistics firms and especially importers. Lanier recognizes how critical importers are in the equation. For meaningful progress to be made on port congestion, many believe that terminals must extend their gate hours. But more importantly, importers must be willing to take delivery of cargo at warehouses during those off-hour periods, and that means putting their money where their mouth is by keeping their warehouses open into the night. It's an encouraging sign that shippers appear to be acknowledging this. "There is a growing realization among our small band (of importers) that some of the problems are caused by themselves, that shippers are part of the problem. (Truckers') perception - it may be right, it may be wrong - is that the main impediment to using nighttime gates is their customers, those who own the cargo."

When shippers get involved in logistics policy issues, action can be expected to follow. Remember when the NITLeague plunged into container shipping? The result was the Ocean Shipping Reform Act. The Waterfront Coalition, when it was called the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, was ready to start a pilot project to extend gate hours in Los Angeles-Long Beach but got sidetracked when the longshore negotiations began heating up. Now the group has refocused, away from longshore matters and across the full U.S. It's likely we'll be hearing more from them before long.