The largest drayage group in the Port of New York and New Jersey is once again urging the port’s main terminals to extend weekly gate hours by opening on Saturdays to handle elevated turn times due to rising cargo volumes and short workweeks over the holidays.
The Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, in a Wednesday letter to the terminal operators, said that “based on the feedback we've been getting from many of our members, there is a desperate need for Saturday hours.” Container volume through the largest East Coast container port was up 20 percent in December, with the volume of loaded TEU rising by 8.1 percent to 3.7 million TEU, compared with a 6.4 percent increase in 2017, according PIERS, a JOC.com sister company. December imports from China were up 22.9 percent, the figures show.
Although the letter asks only that the terminals open Jan. 26 to clear up the “container backlog,” Jeff Bader, the association president, said he wants the terminals to open regularly on Saturdays because the association does not expect the higher-than-usual cargo volumes to decline. Only APM Terminals, which has opened on Saturdays since early November in an effort to cope with persistent truck delays and congestion, is scheduled to be open this Saturday. Under normal circumstances, none of the terminals open on a Saturday.
High volume — will it continue?
Beth Rooney, assistant director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s port division, said it is not clear whether the current high volumes of cargo will continue or if they will subside into the New Year as is usually the case. Even if they do, it’s still to be determined whether Saturday hours, or gate extensions at other times in the week, are the most effective response, said Rooney. The port is currently studying the question, along with issues such as whether area warehouses are ready to accept cargo at off-peak hours.
Chris Garbarino, chief operating officer of Port Newark Container Terminal (PNCT), said the terminal didn’t need to open Saturday, in part because it was the only major terminal in the port to open on Monday, the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Depending on cargo surges or the adverse effects of inclement weather, opening Saturday is always an option when absolutely necessary,” he said. PNCT and Maher Terminals opened on Saturdays after Christmas in anticipation of higher demand due to the shorter workweeks.
The elevated cargo volumes and stress on port resources stem from a range of coincident factors, said port officials and stakeholders. The terminal most affected has been APM Terminals, which is undergoing a terminal upgrade and has struggled with a shortage of equipment. Truckers complain that it can take several hours to pick up or drop off a container, with sporadic cases of 10-hour turn times. But the terminal says the situation has improved as a result of a range of measures, including bringing in more equipment, extending gate hours, and diverting vessels to other terminals.
Along with the scheduled vessels arriving, the port has in recent weeks seen at least six — and possibly more — “loaders,” or unscheduled ships, together carrying 15,000 additional TEU, as shippers rushed to get imports from China into the United States before tariffs rose from 10 to 25 percent on a Jan. 1 deadline set by President Donald Trump, the port said. Trump subsequently postponed the date until March 1.
Holidays also reduced work time
In addition, the Christmas and New Years holidays created two three-day weeks, and the Martin Luther King holiday shut all but one of the port terminals on Monday. The volume increase has also helped to create a chassis shortage in the port, in part due to shippers storing containers on top of chassis because they don’t have available warehouse space.
Bader said the “terminals’ turn times have deteriorated rapidly over the past two months,” and the association does not expect the volume increases to decline in the near future.
“The letter was prompted by our membership asking us to reach out to the terminals to help alleviate some of the pressures,” said Bader, adding that if a terminal does not have sufficient volume to support it, then he does not expect it to open on Saturdays.
Truckers in the port have long encouraged the terminals to extend gate hours, seeing it as a way to reduce congestion and delays, especially as cargo volumes increase and more mega-vessels call at the port. The Council on Port Performance, a group of port stakeholders that seeks to improve efficiency in the port, has cited the issue as one of three priorities needed to ensure fluidity.
Terminals have said they are open to extending gate hours if the cargo volume arriving requires it, but so far they do not. And some stakeholders question the point of extending gate hours if area warehouses do not open on extended gate hours and truckers can’t deliver or pick up cargo in off-peak hours.
A sticking point in the decision to extend gate hours at other ports has also been who pays for the extra labor and other costs to keep the terminals open longer hours. The port of Montreal, for example, placed a $35-per-container fee to fund the hours, and the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach enacted a $31.52-per-TEU or $63.04-per-FEU fee on all containers, after 13 years of placing no fee on containers moved in off-peak hours but a fee of $72.09 per TEU or $144.18 per FEU for boxes moved in daytime hours.
Rooney told JOC’s Port Performance North America Conference in New Jersey on Dec. 11 that it was “inevitable” that the port would eventually have longer gate hours, but it was unclear when that would happen.