Marine Transportation System

Measuring Port Performance

In Efficiency, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Port Performance, Ports, Transportation Policy on January 26, 2016 at 4:35 pm

The issue of measuring port performance was a contentious one over the last half of 2015. Now that there is such as thing in law as the Port Performance Freight Statistics Program the action has shifted to what to do about it. USDOT — really the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — is tasked with implementing the new law that requires the collection of data to express throughput and capacity in ports. BTS is expected to anonymize the competitively sensitive data for public consumption and report annually to Congress.

Implementation will prove no less a contentious matter, at least among the interests who were most active as the bill was being debated and now hope to inform BTS decisions. Nor does it promise to be a simple task for the agency.

Helpful to BTS is that some of the original bill requirements as to specific metrics and stepped up data collection during collective bargaining was left on the legislative cutting room floor. (The Port Performance Act, S.1298, as reported from committee listed eight metrics that must be used — such as average container lifts per hour and average cargo dwell time — and then added another five data types to be reported monthly to Congress around the time of port labor contract negotiations.)

The final version frees BTS to assemble a program that, perhaps, a transportation statistical agency might consider valid for assessing both port condition and performance, both being information that the department wants to have on the total freight system. Port related metrics are a segment of supply chain data that BTS previously said it lacked.

Not so helpful to BTS is that the mandate to build a new program was not accompanied by money to pay for the effort. Indeed, the agency’s authorized annual budget limit for the next five years is $26 million as set by Congress in the FAST Act. That is less than the agency has been given in past year appropriations and less than the $29 million requested by the Administration. (The American Statistical Association provides this perspective: “$26 million is the same level of the BTS budget in FY05, which means BTS will see a 30% decline in purchasing power from FY05 to FY20 due to inflation.”)

The port performance program is not a simple matter to stand up. That was made patently clear recently when BTS held a session on the subject at the TRB Annual Meeting. The agency took advantage of the fact that Washington was temporarily populated with scads of transportation economists, planners, engineers, industry representatives, consultants and other data hounds. At this session labeled “Port Data Users Forum” Rolf Schmitt, Deputy Director of BTS, sat on the dais making notes on his laptop as he heard a variety of comments and issues from persons at the standing mic. Specific questions were posed to get responses from the 70 or so folk in the room.

  1. What are the different port types from which data would need to be drawn?
  2. How could they be ranked (given that the law calls for data from the top 25 ports as measured by TEUs, tonnage and dry bulk cargo but ranking would not be a simple as that might seem)?
  3. What are some widely accepted and used types of port statistics?
  4. What is the best way to measure performance to determine efficiency and productivity?

Dan Smith of The Tioga Group that has studied terminal productivity, Bruce Lambert of the Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies, Anne Aylward of USDOT’s Volpe Center and former Boston port  director, Paul Bingham of the Economic Development Research Group, and Anne Kappel of the World Shipping Council were among the knowledgeable persons who offered suggestions and cautions. The comments collected gave Schmitt plenty to chew on.

The folks at BTS were given some formal help by Congress. The new PPFSP (it being Washington we have to mine initials to mysteriously label programs) includes the formation of a temporary “working group” of Federal agency, stakeholder and other sector representatives to assist BTS in determining what metrics to use in data collection and how to go about getting the data. Those stakeholders and some other likely working group members were among the persons (I among them) who lobbied and competed for preferred legislative language. One might expect those opposing views to surface again in some form during the working group discussions.

In his opening comments Rolf Schmitt noted that while the legislation uses the “working group” phraseology — perhaps an attempt by bill writers to avoid mandating formation of a formal advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act — it will be a Federal Advisory Committee in every sense of the word. That means a formal process starting with a notice in the Federal Register, the writing of a charter, and a host of other administrative requirements. A rulemaking process also is necessary to complete the task of establishing the data collection program. Schmitt noted that Federal law says that agencies such as his must minimize the burden put on those affected by such rules. Always good to know.

There was no lengthy list of suggested metrics offered that evening by those at the microphone in response to the question that held the most interest. Cargo dwell time and rail turn times were mentioned and indicated as among data that the marine terminal would keep. Since many terminals are privately operated, port authorities are not in possession of that data and, as one person noted, that is especially true in ports where private terminals are not tenants of a port authority.

Truck turn times were also mentioned but, as another person noted, collecting turn times that include waiting outside the gate will require capital investments in measuring equipment. The Port of Oakland is experimenting with Bluetooth technology. On the previous day Reade Kidd, Home Depot’s Director of International Logistics, offered the opinion of probably most cargo interests that metrics should reflect berth, rail, yard and gate operations.

When the hour was up, Rolf Schmitt left the convention center, no doubt thinking he had more questions and problems to solve on leaving than when he arrived.  Pbea

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  1. […] a final report to BTS by the December 4, statutory deadline. The respected statistical agency is faced with a challenge and must make its first report to Congress a month later. There’s no time to waste. […]

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