Marine Transportation System

Rx: Port Decongestant

In Competition, Government, Port Performance, Ports on April 14, 2016 at 1:14 am

The Secretary of Commerce received recommendations from her department’s Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness (ACSCC). The paper: Recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce Regarding US Seaport and Connecting Infrastructure Congestion “for addressing and resolving” the “urgent national topic” of port congestion.

(From the humble perspective of a long time ports advocate in Washington, DC, home of the ten-ring circus, it is gratifying and reassuring that ports can sometimes make it to the spotlight and, even more, qualify as an urgent national topic…whether to the Commerce Secretary or to anyone. Not a bad career choice after all.)

Federal leadership is needed to advance a set of best port congestion reduction practices that the private and public owners and stakeholders of each port can individually adopt as appropriate. Our report contains a number of congestion reduction practices for this purpose. By advancing these practices, the Nation can achieve a comprehensive, holistic reduction in port congestion that improves national competitiveness and economic growth.

The February 4, 2016 transmittal letter to Secretary Penny Pritzker also noted that there is a limit to the role that Washington can play in addressing the issue but wanted to make the most of that role.

However, where Federal Government involvement can directly resolve port congestion issues, or reduce their impacts, Federal action should be swift and decisive.

The nine-page paper was drafted, discussed, and edited by the panel — a formal Federal Advisory Committee — over a good part of the previous year and then was approved at its January meeting. The folks who led the initiative are knowledgeable in freight logistics. And if certain others of the 30 to 40 persons usually present for the meetings had little personal knowledge of what happens in the life of an ocean shipping container it was explained to them.

(This is a good time to note that one sector that did not have a seat at that table is one that could have contributed greatly to the panel’s understanding of port terminal operations — the marine terminal industry. Further note: the newly selected class of ACSCC appointees to the 44 member advisory committee continues the seeming exclusion of representatives of the terminal industry.)

Port congestion, as it has come to be called, is a problem only in a few of the larger US ports but as those international gateways — New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Virginia — handle a substantial share of the nation’s cargo, especially imports, slowed cargo throughput is a problem and can be costly to cargo interests and others involved in the port-centered supply chain. It is not that the other ports will never see port congestion. Others likely will, eventually. But even as this “urgent national” port topic has become an issue in Washington, and attracting the attention of multiple Federal agencies, most ports have seen none of the symptoms and few of the causes, of which there are many.

Simplistically, it might be compared to growing pains. Changes are happening to the port, terminal and other elements of the port-centered supply chain. Some of their moving parts are not moving as well as they had been. Cargo volumes are shifting. Shippers are diversifying ports of entry. Larger vessels mean more cargo to load or unload during one vessel call. Terminals were configured for the business of ten years ago. Ocean carriers relinquished ownership of chassis but not full control. A chassis or container depot is not convenient to the terminal. The truck driver makes multiple trips for one load. Drivers are told to to pick up the container when there might be better times to do it. Trucks spend hours in lines, sometimes needlessly. Discouraged drivers exit the business, causing shortages. Roads to the terminal are inadequate for the truck volume. Rail capacity is insufficient. Berths may work around the clock but gates do not because the container is destined for a warehouse not open until eight in the morning.

Throw in some sort of labor dispute (slowdown, etc) or a failure of the computerized terminal operating system and a combination of these factors can make for a quite a mess. The 2014-2015 West Coast experience during protracted labor contract negotiations — with two dozen and more ships at anchor offshore as evidence of the problem onshore — remains vivid in the minds of many whose cargo was slow to get to market and, in the case of farm exports, spoiled. The experience also is a vivid memory for  the people who worked to clear the ships and terminals of containers.

So, yes, there is a problem that some ports have been working to address. Indeed in those named ports multidisciplinary groups were organized to identify and tackle those problems. The first of those was the NY/NJ Port Performance Task Force, which for the implementation phase was succeeded by the Council on Port Performance.

The 2016 recommendations to Secretary Pritzker do not stand alone. In 2014, the Federal Maritime Commission heard stakeholders during four regional listening sessions, and later issued staff reports. The FMC is about to launch what may be its last initiative — Supply Chain Innovation Teams to “develop commercial solutions to supply chain challenges and related port congestion concerns” at the San Pedro Bay ports. In March of this year, the cabinet secretaries of Commerce, Labor and Transportation hosted an invitation-only, “21st century seaports roundtable” that was organized by the White House’s National Economic Council. Bills were introduced on Capitol Hill in 2015 and one — the Port Performance Act — eventually became law. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics is now working on implementing the resulting Port Performance Freight Statistics Program. All of which can reasonably be attributed to the lobbying of cargo interests, with the help of trucking, who smarted from the West Coast port mess and wanted to see improvements that included, but not were limited to, workforce issues.

Committee members noted, during the discussion of this Report, that these measures can be used by the ACSCC to help the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop the set of port performance metrics required by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The Committee also encourages the U.S. Congress to consider additional investment in last-mile infrastructure, new technologies and intelligent systems, and on-dock and near-dock facilities towards reducing U.S. port congestion.

The recommendations of “best practices” delivered to Secretary Pritzker, the details of which you can read here, apply to ocean carriers; terminal operations; port authorities; Federal, State and local government; chassis equipment management; motor carriers; and transportation planners. It is interesting to note that the recommendations apply to just about everyone in the port-related supply chain except the importers and exporters who, as happens, were the principal writers and proponents of the document.

One might wonder if others in the supply chain would have “best practices” to suggest to that shipper community. I think they would.

The Port Performance Task Force report engaged representatives of stakeholders from most aspects of the supply chain and came up with twenty-three recommendations to try to implement. Some of those recommendations, perhaps many, are true challenges, asking competing parties to cooperate in establishing shared solutions such as a truck management system (a.k.a. “appointments”) and chassis pools. Most of the recommendations have little to do with Federal or State government and much to do with improving commercial relationships, embracing new technology, sharing information, adjusting operations, improving communications, and respecting a negotiated labor contract. A few of those are in the recommendations to the Secretary.

The interest of Federal agencies in the port congestion issue is not a bad thing but it is misleading to label it “port congestion.” It is a supply chain problem. Why did the advisory committee recommendations go to the Secretary of Commerce? I suppose the reason is — like the banks to Willie Sutton — because she is there, and the panel exists to advise the Secretary. But as the transmittal letter admits, there is not much that the government can do. Outside of facilitating meetings and providing some assistance in funding infrastructure projects, the lion’s share of the work to be done is there in the supply chain, by the parties that make up the supply chain…and not just at the marine terminal.   Pbea

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