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John Martin, president of Martin Associates, explains the factors behind persistent cargo congestion at West Coast ports, and the “cumulative collapse” of the nation’s entire logistics supply chain.
The situation at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach “has been bad, and it’s probably going to get worse,” says Martin. He was retained by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents marine terminal employers, to examine the severe delays in San Pedro Bay between October of 2020 and March of 2021.
What he concluded was that the collapse of the entire system occurred “outside the [marine] terminal gates” — specifically, at inland warehouses and rail terminals. Their inability to handle the surge of freight caused by unanticipated levels of demand coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic caused backups all the way to the West Coast. As a result, operators experienced record container dwell times of more than five days at marine terminals, and 11 days at intermodal facilities. “Street” dwell times, the time it takes to discharge a container and chassis at a warehouse, peaked at eight days.
Making matters worse is an increase in the transloading of cargo from marine containers into domestic trailers close to the port, instead of placing the original container on the rails for transit into the interior. That practice serves the needs of ocean carriers, which are keen to get containers back to Asia quickly for reloading with lucrative import cargoes, but it also means that oceangoing boxes are clogging up distribution facilities that were designed to handle shipments by truck.
Martin sees no early or easy answer to the crisis, the solution to which would require the extensive expansion of inland railyard and warehouse capacity nationwide. “These are structural issues that can’t be [solved] overnight,” he says.
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