The Working Group that is to advise the Bureau of Transportation Statistics on port performance statistics metrics had a memorable first meeting. The panel consisting of Federal agency and stakeholder representatives — appointments that nearly comply with congressional direction — includes proponents and opponents of the notion that the Federal government should collect port performance data. They, and others who had stayed clear of the 2015 congressional debate that concluded with the creation of the Port Performance Freight Statistics Program, part of the surface transportation FAST Act, voiced their views, doubts and questions at the inaugural meeting.
Part of the day’s program was designed to get participants on the same page. While some of them may never agree on why or what data should be collected they could at least start working from a certain understanding as to terminology, what a port looks like, and how terminals operate. It was the task of consultants Daniel Hackett (Hackett Associates) and Dan Smith (Tioga Group) to provide tutorials. It was a lot to absorb. Especially for those at the table who spend little, if any, time in the maritime world.
The hour that Dan Smith spoke could have been doubled considering the volume and value of the information he shared on terminal configurations, the diversity of metrics used in ports, and other pertinent details. If anything, the Working Group members could start to appreciate the challenge presented by the congressional mandate that USDOT collect data employing uniform metrics in a sector where even the term “ton” comes in different forms and meanings. A hundred or so commercial ports, and many more marine terminals, operate in the US. Uniformity may be inevitable but it may take a while to get there.
Several people in the room — representatives for the railroads, a port, and organized labor — questioned why collecting port data was even necessary. John Gray of the American Association of Railroads started, matter of factly. “Just because Congress says go collect data doesn’t make it a good idea.” It was a view likely not shared by Senate staff in the room.
The shippers in the room — National Retail Federation, Lowe’s and Home Depot, at the table, and agriculture exporters in audience — represented the interest sector most responsible for the creation of the new port performance program. Advocates for an answer to what happened on the West Coast and for the industry and longshore labor to answer for it. The shippers who won seats at the WorkinHg Group table explained their need for transparency and reliability but seemed not to want to be the oft-heard advocates in the room.
Labor did. The AFL-CIO, ILWU, and other union reps made clear their opposition to any data collection that oculd reflect on workforce performance. Inevitably, it would be used by others during contract talks, they explained. (Of course, everyone at the bargaining table — unions and management alike — would already have every potentially useful statistic at their disposal.) Besides, they said, better infrastructure is where the need is, implying that port data are not useful in showing where inadequate infrastructure contributes to port congestion.
They reminded folks who knew the legislative history, and informed those who did not, of the original Senate legislation — the Port Performance Act. Inspired, as it was, by the slowed cargo on the West Coast during the 2014-2015 talks, and by appeals from the cargo interests, the bill’s authors wanted to mandate more frequent reporting of port performance data to Washington around the time of collective bargaining.
Labor representatives did not fail to note that a shippers coalition letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, sent after the bill became law, urged the collection of monthly figures on container lifts, a key KPI on workforce productivity. Labor pointed to it as evidence that, even though provisions on specific metrics and collective bargaining did not make it into to law, the shippers were persisting in urging USDOT to secure data that could be used to create legal or political pressure against the workers’ interest.
The unions were aided in discouraging consideration of crane-related metrics when, later in the meeting, POLA’s Gene Seroka and others said crane lift data was of questionable value outside of the terminal itself. As if to put a period on the issue, Lowe’s Rick Gabrielson said he does not care about the reporting of crane hours. Capacity is the issue.
Over the course of the day persons questioned the rationale for nationally collected port data but no one questioned the value of metrics used in addressing port terminal problems at the local level. Former Lowe’s executive Mike Mabry, now chair of MARAD’s Marine Transportation System National Advisory Committee, was one to ask how data would be used. He discouraged BTS collecting data just to have data. “You can drown in input metrics,” he said. What’s important is to know how the data would be used and then tailor a decision on metrics to that.
Congress told BTS to collect data that would help capture US port “capacity and throughput.” Port of Houston’s Roger Guenther asked rhetorically, and doubtfully, if private marine terminals would want to say what is their capacity. Alternatively, he said that a crucial metric for determining how well a port or terminal is functioning is how adequately it is staffed by Customs officers. Insufficient numbers of CBP inspection personnel contribute to terminal congestion and slowed throughput. Others concurred.
At a July 7, hearing the Port of Baltimore’s David Espie told House subcommittee members of the problems presented by inadequate Federal security support in the form of aging radiation portal monitors in need of replacement, unknown maintenance records, and overworked Customs officers.”CBP is very strapped,” said Espie. Low-level personnel work long hours at the RPMs and are “bored,” suggesting a morale issue.
At the BTS meeting the BCOs reiterated their statement of record, that there is no interest in comparing one port to another but rather a port’s improvement (or not) overtime. The railroads’ John Gray, experienced in working with industry numbers, observed that the intended use of collected data notwithstanding, once data is published it will be used by persons incorrectly if they would find that useful.
If there was something on which all folks at the table could agree it might have been that statistics can be helpful in bringing more investment, including Federal grants, to port-related infrastructure. Noting that in recent years ports have become eligible for Federal grants MARAD’s Lauren Brand said collecting port data would be helpful to convince policy makers that capacity requirements and other infrastructure needs warrant greater Federal investment. BTS’s Rolf Schmitt admitted that his agency knows the capacity of the highway system but has no knowledge of the American port system’s capacity. He could have added that some of the Republican bill’s wording came from the Obama Administration’s proposed Grow America Act to —
…authorize a port performance statistics program within the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to provide nationally consistent statistics on capacity and throughput for all maritime ports to assess performance for freight transportation planning and investment analysis; and require advice from major stakeholders who collect and use port information.
The other unavoidable fact is that BTS is under the gun to implement what Congress wrought in law. Former Massport executive director, Anne Aylward, managed well as meeting moderator. She patiently urged participants to “find areas of commonality” and “work with what is in the law now.” She invited the Working Group members, and those who were not at the table, to send, by August 1, initial ideas as to suitable uniform metrics and how the data could be collected.
The Working Group is to issue 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. Pbea