US ports question CBP’s focus on facilities rather than staffing

US ports question CBP’s focus on facilities rather than staffing

US CBP agent inspecting peppers at Red Hook Terminal, New York.

A big concern, according to the AAPA, is that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requests often come at the last minute, requesting changes to a port upgrade that will affect their facilities as they near completion, rather than earlier in the process. (Above: A US CBP agent inspects peppers at Red Hook Terminal, New York, United States.) Photo credit: CBP.

US ports are asking US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to reconsider prioritizing upgrading facilities, particularly as some ocean ports of entry suffer from inadequate staffing — which slows cargo clearance.

Following recent complaints from at least 10 port members, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) urged Customs to provide its reasoning for focusing on often “expensive, overbuilt” facilities. Agent staffing has risen only 34 percent since 2003, while container volume has rocketed 71 percent between 2001 and 2007, according to AAPA.

“Ports already are straining their budgets to build the terminal, road, and rail infrastructure needed to address congestion, keep freight flowing, and serve the American economy,” AAPA said in a Nov. 28 letter to Customs. “The costs of the facilities CBP is requesting are substantial and ports face the prospect of delaying other critical projects to meet increasing demands from CBP for new facilities.”

Customs said it has received the letter and will respond directly to AAPA’s concerns.

John Young, AAPA’s director of freight and surface transportation policy, said the concerns, which stem both from facilities demanded on the cargo movement and cruise liner side of port business, have existed for years. That lack of new staffing feeds port questions about why the facility upgrades demanded by CBP are needed, if the number of CBP officers is not increasing, he said.

“Many ports are concerned about the continued shortage of CBP maritime staffing,” the AAPA wrote in its letter. It said the association wants to better understand how staffing decisions are made and to what extent staffing decisions drive the request for new or upgraded CBP facilities. One reason for the concern is that the requests come in even though “generally CBP staff already have adequate facilities,” the letter added.

AAPA concerned about late, often last-minute requests

A big concern, Young said, is that CBP requests often come at the last minute, requesting changes to a port upgrade that will affect their facilities as they near completion, rather than earlier in the process, when the agency’s request could be more easily incorporated into the design.

The AAPA letter asks CBP to identify its concerns for existing facilities and why new construction is needed for the agency to meet is mission. The letter also asks the agency to explain what statutory authority it has to demand local entities pay for the facilities, rather than the federal government. And it asks whether the CBP follows the practices suggested by the General Services Administration (GSA).

The AAPA’s October 15 letter to Congressional leaders said it was seeing a “disturbing trend” of “CBP facility and reimbursable requests [sometimes demands] on public seaports.” At that time, while the proposed budget called for a hiring of 325 new CBP officers, and the US House and Senate suggested hiring 375, the AAPA asked for 500 new officers, as well as replacements for the 700 officers expected to leave the agency through attrition, for a total of about 1,200. The other two proposals did not seek attrition replacements, Young said.  

“Ports and terminals complain that CBP typically requires far more space and furnishings than are needed, resulting in significant increases in costs to build facilities,” the letter said. “Often, change orders are requested by CBP at the last minute, driving up building costs unnecessarily. There continues to be little concern for budget overruns or timely planning in CBP requests.”

The letter added that “one port asked CBP what authority or what statute they had to request that the CBP facility be built and were told ‘that the authority was inherent’.”

Contact Hugh R. Morley at hugh.morley@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.