Heavy volume from larger ships and carrier alliances is straining capacity at New York-New Jersey container terminals just when shippers are seeking alternatives to congested West Coast ports.
For the last several weeks, port truckers have endured hours-long turn times at one or two of the port’s five major terminals each day. The delays usually follow arrivals of large ships that discharge up to several thousand import containers that must be funneled through truck gates during weekday hours.
Drayage drivers waited in queues reported to be three miles or longer Friday outside Port Newark Container Terminal. PNCT and GCT Bayonne, which also has had intermittent severe congestion, planned to open their truck gates Saturday to catch up on backlogs.
East Coast ports have been deluged with Asian shipments routed to avoid disruptions during recent West Coast longshore contract negotiations. Though West Coast traffic is moving again, New York-New Jersey is still receiving higher-than-normal volumes while the West Coast contract awaits ratification.
Recent delays haven’t been limited to the East Coast’s largest port. The Port of Virginia also is struggling with congestion that reached crisis levels after a four-day shutdown caused by a February snowstorm.
Jeff Bader, president of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers and of drayage company Golden Carriers, blamed much of the problem in New York-New Jersey on container-line alliances, particularly the new 2M alliance of Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co.
He said PNCT has been “overwhelmed” by increased volume from 2M ships, several of which have had to be diverted to the adjacent Maher Terminal. “No matter how hard they work, they can’t catch up,” he said.
Other terminals also are scrambling to deal with revised carrier alliances, the arrival of ad hoc “sweeper ships” carrying cargo that normally would move via the West Coast, and overall volume growth that has accompanied a strengthening economy. New York-New Jersey’s January volume of 463,002 full and empty TEUs was up nearly 8 percent from a year earlier.
GCT Bayonne, formerly known as Global Terminal, recently handled an extra loader that was the first 10,000-TEU vessel to call on the East Coast. The terminal is the only major one in New York-New Jersey that isn’t affected by the 151-foot vertical clearance under the Bayonne Bridge.
Rick Larrabee, director of port commerce at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has noted that larger ships not only have more capacity but tend to discharge a higher percentage of it on a single call at a load-center port.
That creates problems for port terminals with limited acreage for container storage, said Edward Kelly, president of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York.
Some terminals have required some empty boxes to be returned to off-dock depots. This eases pressure on marine terminals but requires truckers to make an extra stop -- and sometimes endure an additional long queue.
Truckers are frustrated. Most port drivers are owner-operators who are paid by the trip. Drayage companies with employee drivers are absorbing added costs to pay drivers to wait in line at terminals and empty-container depots.
Edisson Villacis, an owner-operator who hosts Port Driver, a Facebook site where drayage drivers air gripes and swap information about road and terminal conditions, said drivers bear the brunt of delays at terminals.
He said terminals have more volume than they are designed to handle -- “When you get 9,000 boxes, three times a week, where are you going to put them?” -- and that drivers are fed up.
“Last winter they said it was the weather. Before that, it was the computers acting up. Before that, it was (Hurricane) Sandy. Now they’re saying it’s the congestion on the West Coast. Every time it’s a different excuse,” he told JOC.com.
Under tariffs filed with the Federal Maritime Commission, terminals must pay detention charges when drivers’ turn times exceed certain lengths, usually about two hours. However, detention charges only cover waiting time inside terminals, and don’t include time spent in queues on streets outside terminal gates.
“If they don’t do something, more drivers are going to leave this industry,” Villacis said. He said drayage companies “have the same drivers moving from company to company, but they can’t find new drivers.”
Villacis said congestion limits ability to average more than one or two turns a day, and makes it difficult for drivers to buy new trucks to meet increasingly strict clean-air requirements imposed by the port authority.
In recent days, the Port Driver site on Facebook has featured several photos of accidents involving trucks in and around the port. Villacis said waiting in lines and is rushing to make a delivery isn’t conducive to safety.
“I get paid by the move,” he said on Friday. “Today I’ve been waiting to pick up a container. If I can’t take it out before 4 p.m., I can’t deliver it until Monday, and that means that day’s shot, too.”
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New York Shipping Association are leading an effort to implement 23 recommendations issued last year by an industry-wide port performance task force.
High on that list a plan to improve the intermodal chassis availability, a daily source of frustration by truckers who must waste time searching for usable chassis or making an intermediate at a certain depot to pick up or deliver a chassis.
The Council on Port Performance, organized in 2014, plans by mid-year to introduce a centrally managed “gray” pool of intermodal chassis that could be interchanged between leasing companies that now operate separately.
Bader said the gray pool is a positive step but that the leasing companies that provide most chassis in the port should make more equipment available now. TRAC Intermodal, which provides more than 60 percent of the port’s chassis, said it has added or refurbished several thousand units in the port in the last couple of years.
New York-New Jersey’s struggle with congestion isn’t likely to end soon, Bader said. “There’s no relief in sight,” he said. “We’re resilient, we’re working through it, but it’s just one thing after another.”
Some have suggested that congestion at terminals could ease as West Coast diversions taper off and New York-New Jersey sees the usual lull a few weeks after the annual shutdown of Chinese factories for the Lunar New Year celebration. Bader disagrees. He said the valleys in cargo volume have caught up with the peaks.
Kelly also said terminals can’t expect a break in cargo volume anytime soon. He said cargo that left Asia before the holiday last month is still arriving, and that new shipments are still being booked for arrival in the next few weeks.
“Soon we’ll have summer goods coming in, and soon after that we’ll have the holiday peak season,” he said. “Really, there’s no longer a slack season for inbound freight.”