Truckers at the Port of New York and New Jersey say the first days of 2014 have greeted them with congestion reminiscent of the gridlock that delayed cargo pickups and deliveries last summer.
“We’re off to a flying stop,” said Tom Heimgartner, president of Best Transportation in Port Newark, N.J.
Drivers have been forced to wait in hours-long lines to pick up and deliver cargo at clogged container terminals.
Terminals are struggling to catch up from the mid-week Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays, a blizzard that closed the port last Friday, heavy import-export volume, a tight supply of longshore labor, and cold weather that affected terminals’ hydraulic equipment.
“Drivers who could be making three turns a day are doing only one,” Heimgartner said. “It’s taking five or six hours for a turn that should take two.”
Congestion has been especially severe at Maher Terminals, which handles 40 percent of the port’s container traffic and is dealing with heavy volume. Port authority police are restricting the length of truck lines outside Maher’s gates this week in an effort to keep roads clear.
Startup problems with a new terminal operating system at Maher set off last summer’s port-wide congestion, which was aggravated by vacation-season shortages of longshore labor and major construction in and around terminals.
Maher announced today that it would suspend demurrage penalties and extend free storage time through Friday. The terminal previously granted a one-day extension of free storage time during the peak of congestion earlier this week.
Maher also is keeping its terminal gates open till 7 p.m. until further notice. The adjacent APM Terminals is keeping gates open till 5:30 p.m. this week.
Gate closing times don’t always mean the end of a driver’s work day. With terminals congested, Many drivers have had to wait for service long after inbound gates are closed behind them.
Carl Frederick, co-owner of Container Terminal Services, a Kearny, N.J.-based agent for ARL Network, said one of his drivers waited at Maher until nearly midnight Tuesday, only to be forced to leave without his container.
Although last summer’s gridlock was unparalleled, terminals have continued to face intermittent congestion in recent months, especially when there they over overwhelmed by cargo spikes or ships arriving off schedule.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has organized a broad-based industry task force to find ways to improve the port’s performance. Heimgartner, who sits on one of the task force’s subcommittees, said the port authority initiative offers long-term hope but that truckers need solutions now.
Drayage companies say some owner-operators, who are paid by the trip, have become reluctant to accept assignments to congested piers. Many drivers keep a close eye on the Port Driver page on Facebook, which drivers use to share updates.
Unlike owner-operators who are paid by the trip, Best’s drivers are company employees but Heimgartner said they are “frustrated” by the tedious waiting time outside and inside terminals. “No one wants to sit there for hours and hours,” he said.
He and other truckers say the congestion is raising motor carriers’ costs for labor, demurrage,container per-diem costs, and chassis rentals, and that the result could be a shakeout of drayage companies that raises rates and affects the port’s competitiveness.
“”We still haven’t recovered all of the business that was diverted to other ports last summer,” Heimgartner said. “Some of our Pennsylvania customers are using Baltimore or Philadelphia instead of New York.”