Container terminals at the Port of New York and New Jersey are fighting a seemingly unending battle with congestion that has accompanied record import volume and is producing costly delays for truckers and cargo owners.
Backups outside GCT Bayonne on Thursday were so severe that the New Jersey Turnpike used its electronic signs to warn of “marine terminal delays,” and a port authority e-mail asked truckers to temporarily avoid the terminal because of “extreme traffic conditions.”
At mid-morning, the traffic jam outside GCT Bayonne stretched six miles onto the turnpike. Also gridlocked was State Route 440, a surface-level highway that provides an alternate route to the Bayonne facility, which until recently was known as Global Terminal.
It was the latest and arguably most severe manifestation of delays that have plagued the port for weeks. Congestion has been worst at Port Newark Container Terminal and GCT Bayonne. Both recently have begun handling larger ships, including extra vessels that carriers have deployed to cope with recent gridlock at West Coast ports.
“It’s volume. They’ve taken on more business than they can handle. The emperor has no clothes,” said Tom Heimgartner, president of drayage operator Best Transportation. He said he’s paying drivers for unproductive waiting time, and that terminals balk at waiving demurrage or extending free storage time for containers.
John Atkins, president of GCT USA, which operates the Bayonne terminal and GCT-New York on Staten Island, said the cause of the delays can’t be blamed on volume. He said traffic through the Bayonne terminal’s truck gates has been at or below normal levels.
Atkins said GCT Bayonne’s semi-automated yard cranes, installed last year as part of a $325 million modernization and expansion, are performing smoothly, and that there have been no longshore labor slowdowns.
He said much of the congestion can be blamed on truck volume surges that create long lines at gates and congestion inside terminals. GCT Bayonne is working toward a mid-year launch of a truck management system designed to level out peaks and valleys of truck arrivals. Such a system was among 23 recommendations last year by an industrywide port performance task force.
Atkins said trucks have been arriving “earlier and earlier” before gates open, creating miles-long queues and an early-morning surge that slows terminal operations. He said that when Global cleared its last trucks Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., drivers already were queueing up for today’s gate opening.
“It defies logic,” he said. “We’re fully utilized, so there will be some lines. But a lot of this is because of the unmetered volume coming in all at once.”
This week’s traffic jams outside GCT Bayonne prompted port authority police to reinstate a ban on truck queues outside the terminal before 5:30 a.m. The announcement came after the terminal appealed for truckers to schedule arrivals “more regularly throughout the regular gate hours” of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Port truckers arrive early in hope they can pick up a container early and make multiple turns in a day. Many truckers say they oppose appointment systems until terminals can ensure quick turn times that don’t leave drivers behind schedule for their next pickup or delivery.
Heimgartner said his dispatchers struggle to find slack times at terminals. “If I knew that, say, 1 p.m. Tuesday, would be a good time, I’d go then,” he said. “But there’s never a good time. It’s always crowded.”
Queues and congestion at New York-New Jersey tend to worsen after arrival of large ships that discharge thousands of containers. Terminals assess demurrage fees for boxes that aren’t removed before free storage time expires. Free-time expiration is the first thing many drayage dispatchers consider in assigning drivers.
In New York-New Jersey, most terminal demurrage begins at $145 per day for the first four days after free-time expiration. Daily fees escalate to $195 per day for the fifth through ninth days and $355 per day after nine days. Demurrage fees for refrigerated containers are higher.
Heimgartner complained that terminals have been unwilling to extend free time or waive demurrage when truckers can’t pick up boxes on time. He said flexibility on demurrage charges would help mitigate truck volume surges such as those that have clogged GCT Bayonne this week.
“They handled big ships over the weekend,” Heimgartner said. “Now it’s Thursday and the four days of free time is expiring, and there’s a five-mile line of trucks.”
Atkins said GCT Bayonne extends free time and waives demurrage on a case-by-case basis, but that granting blanket extensions would create new problems by encouraging customers to use terminals for long-term storage. “We’d just be kicking the can down the road,” he said.
The Federal Maritime Commission has been looking into complaints about terminals’ imposition of demurrage charges and detention fees for containers that can’t be picked up or delivered on time because of congestion.
Because New York-New Jersey cargo is dominated by consumer goods imports, the recent volume surge has swelled the accumulation of empty containers in the port. Terminals have been limiting the number of empty boxes that each ocean carrier can store on a terminal.
Many carriers are requiring empties to be delivered to off-terminal depots. This has freed up scarce acreage at terminals, but has created a new challenge for truckers who now must make an additional stop at an off-dock depot to pick up or deliver an empty box.
Carriers also are loading more empty boxes onto ships on their backhaul to Asia. The Zim Tianjin, which last month became the first 10,000-TEU ship to call on the U.S. East Coast, will make a return stop Friday at GCT Bayonne to be loaded with empty boxes.
Contact Joseph Bonney at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @JosephBonney.