Ocean cargo handlers are scrambling for solutions to the congestion that continues to plague major U.S. container ports, especially Los Angeles and Long Beach. But the ultimate answer might lie in something beyond their control: time.
To be sure, operations at Southern California ports have sped up in recent weeks. In January, there were 109 containerships waiting to get into the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex to unload their cargoes. As of late February, that number had fallen to 58, Port of Long Beach executive director Mario Cordero told the TPM22 conference in Long Beach, California.
Ocean carriers have been incentivized to accelerate movements in Southern California by the megaports’ threat to impose a dwell fee of $100 per day on import containers lingering at marine terminals for nine days or more. But the ports have repeatedly deferred activation of the fee, as the backlog of boxes has steadily decreased. The two ports say they have seen a decline of 62% in “aging” cargo on the docks since the fee was first announced on October 25 — all without actually levying it.
Other actions taken by the ports and carriers over the last two years include Long Beach’s expansion of its Short Term Overflow Resource (STOR) yard at Pier S, where the port plans eventually to build a seventh container terminal. Additional locations for the temporary storage of containers from the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland will be opening up in the coming weeks on land leased out by the state of California. In addition, Port of Los Angeles executive director Gene Seroka told TPM22, the ports are encouraging greater information-sharing among carriers and shippers, expedited pickup of containers during off-peak hours, expanded hours for local warehousing, and faster return of containers and chassis to the port for transport back to Asia.
As landlords that cede responsibility for day-to-day operations to private marine-terminal operators, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach can only do so much to facilitate more efficient handling of cargo on the docks and beyond. And recent moves such as requiring waiting containerships to anchor farther offshore, where they’re not visible from land, are essentially cosmetic in nature. Nevertheless, West Coast port executives are acutely aware that chronic delays are resulting in lost business to facilities on the East and Gulf coasts, so they’re taking an active role in getting carriers to step up the movement of containers over the docks.
Congestion at Southern California ports is nothing new; local cargo interests have been trying to cope with it for years. Their biggest initiative to date has been creation of the PierPass program in 2005, with the goal of extending operating hours at container terminals to include night and Saturday shifts. The additional cost of the program was to be offset by imposition of a traffic mitigation fee on cargo moving during regular hours.
Critics say PierPass hasn’t had the desired impact on port congestion. It took 10 years for the program to implement a full second shift, Cordero noted. “PierPass was originally constituted to reduce congestion at certain times,” Federal Maritime Commission chairman Daniel Maffei told TPM22. “The version they have now makes no attempt do that.”
Three years ago, PierPass began charging the same fee for night operations as during the daytime, noted John Porcari, port envoy to the Biden Administration’s Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force. “That took away the incentive [to operate in off-peak hours],” he said. “It’s very different from the original intent.
Porcari called for renewed efforts to encourage the off-peak use of terminal gates. “PierPass needs to evolve or be replaced by something that actually fulfills those objectives in a way it doesn’t today,” he said.
Ideally, Porcari said, shippers would like to see 24-hour operations at West Coast ports, even though the terminals claim that the late hours currently in effect aren’t being fully utilized.
Efforts to further expand working hours, however, are running into another problem: lack of adequate labor. COVID-19 has reduced the workforce on the docks, as well as at inland facilities. Jeremy Nixon, chief executive officer of the Ocean Network Express (ONE) carrier alliance, said ships haven’t been able to obtain enough work gangs for efficient unloading. The answer, he believes, lies in terminal and warehouse automation, to a degree common at major European and Asia ports but not seen at many U.S. facilities today.
Ultimately, the problem of congestion and freight bottlenecks will require a long-term effort that takes into account all of the parties involving in moving and processing both international and domestic freight, including marine terminals, dockworkers, warehouses, railroads, intermodal terminals and truck drivers. “Goods movement 24/7 is the future,” said Porcari, “but it won’t work if containers have nowhere to go. There’s no light switch that you can turn on here.”
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