What’s Causing Congestion at the Port of New York & New Jersey?

 In cargo, port congestion, Port of New Jersey, Port of New York

The West Coast does not hold a monopoly on port congestion.

East Coast Port Congestion CauseCongestion problems on the West Coast, especially at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, have been extremely costly for truckers, shippers, and others in the international shipping industry over the last year.

Now, East Coast port congestion is costing shippers and truckers money too.

Many shippers have diverted cargo from the West Coast to the East Coast after congestion reached unacceptable levels during the contract negotiations between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).

Unfortunately, congestion seems to be following the cargo.

Congestion at the Port of New York and New Jersey has gotten so bad that the Journal of Commerce (JOC) reported lines of trucks from the port are creating traffic jams and gridlock that stretches miles:

Backups outside GCT Bayonne on Thursday were so severe that the New Jersey Turnpike used its electronic signs to warn of “marine terminal delays,” and a port authority e-mail asked truckers to temporarily avoid the terminal because of “extreme traffic conditions.”

At mid-morning, the traffic jam outside GCT Bayonne stretched six miles onto the turnpike. Also gridlocked was State Route 440, a surface-level highway that provides an alternate route to the Bayonne facility, which until recently was known as Global Terminal.

So the natural question is…

What’s the Cause of Congestion at the Port of New York-New Jersey?

The blame for the congestion is getting spread around a bit. So let’s look at some of the common places people are trying to lay blame.

Is the Union Orchestrating Slowdowns?

Slowdowns are a commonly used tactic throughout the history of longshoremen unions to protest or gain leverage against employers at the ports.

The ILWU made a bad congestion situation much worse on the West Coast by orchestrating slowdowns during the long contract negotiations with the PMA. So when news hit in March that the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) would start contract talks now, instead of waiting three years for the current contract to expire, and port congestion followed, many pointed a finger at the union.

However, union slowdowns are not the cause of the GCT Bayonne congestion at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The JOC article quoted above shared that President of GCT USA, John Atkins said “…there have been no longshore labor slowdowns.”

It would be very surprising if the employers at the ports were trying to cover up labor slowdowns.

Is Increased Cargo Causing the Congestion?

As already mentioned, the terrible congestion situation at West Coast ports caused cargo to be diverted to the East Coast. Larger container ships bringing more cargo at once along with high cargo volume peaks at West Coast ports were among the original causes of West Coast Congestion. This seems like a logical cause of congestion at New York-New Jersey.

Another article from the JOC provides a good overview of how East Coast ports saw increased cargo that would normally ship through the West Coast.

East Coast containerized imports in February almost reached parity with West Coast imports, demonstrating the profound shift in trade that has resulted from port congestion and work slowdowns by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at West Coast ports….

In November, imports at West Coast ports increased 2 percent while imports at East Coast ports increased 13 percent over November 2013. In December, West Coast imports increased 4 percent year-over-year while East Coast imports increased 15 percent.

The real damage to West Coast ports from the work slowdowns and severe congestion came into stark focus in the first two months of this year. West Coast imports declined 24 percent in January from January 2014, but imports on the East Coast increased 9 percent. West Coast imports in February were down 7 percent year-over-year, while East Coast imports increased 14 percent.

Carriers have been sending more ships and larger ships to the East Coast ports in response to the displeasure of congestion at West Coast ports.

Certainly, all this increased cargo shipped through the East Coast ports, especially the busiest East Coast port–New York-New Jersey, is the cause of the congestion and truck backups bleeding out of GCT Bayonne.

Truckers and trucker companies are grumbling that the East Coast ports have taken on more volume cargo than they can handle.

However, John Atkins also says in the first quoted JOC article that the congestion is not caused by the volume and offers another cause:

John Atkins, president of GCT USA, which operates the Bayonne terminal and GCT-New York on Staten Island, said the cause of the delays can’t be blamed on volume. He said traffic through the Bayonne terminal’s truck gates has been at or below normal levels.

Atkins said GCT Bayonne’s semi-automated yard cranes, installed last year as part of a $325 million modernization and expansion, are performing smoothly, and that there have been no longshore labor slowdowns.

He said much of the congestion can be blamed on truck volume surges that create long lines at gates and congestion inside terminals.

Is Trucker Scheduling to Blame for Congestion?

Lines of trucks show up before port terminals open. So many trucks showing up at once is what causes the congestion that is happening at the Port of New York-New Jersey’s Bayonne Terminal according to Atkins in the JOC article:

Atkins said trucks have been arriving “earlier and earlier” before gates open, creating miles-long queues and an early-morning surge that slows terminal operations. He said that when Global cleared its last trucks Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., drivers already were queueing up for today’s gate opening.

“It defies logic,” he said. “We’re fully utilized, so there will be some lines. But a lot of this is because of the unmetered volume coming in all at once.”

This week’s traffic jams outside GCT Bayonne prompted port authority police to reinstate a ban on truck queues outside the terminal before 5:30 a.m. The announcement came after the terminal appealed for truckers to schedule arrivals “more regularly throughout the regular gate hours” of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Large numbers of trucks hitting the port terminals all at once certainly is a problem. But it is also a more complex problem than simply truckers all scheduling their pickups at the same time. However, that is a blog for another time.

The number of trucks hitting the port at once is also certainly made larger by the increased volume of cargo going through the port.

Conclusion

The largest factors in the congestion happening at East Coast ports right now is an increase in cargo volume combined with surges of trucks hitting the ports to pick up and deliver cargo at the same time.

The East Coast congestion has not reached the kind of terrible levels experienced on the West Coast. Largely, this is due to not facing the same chassis problems of the West Coast or a union orchestrating slowdowns to create leverage in contract negotiations.

The biggest logistical issue for the port will be managing the trucking movement in and out of the terminals.

In the next blog, we’ll look at some of the solutions being explored and utilized to help the situation.

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