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American Shipper

Business groups recommend port performance stats for DOT to track

The Department of Transportation is required under a new law to track annual measures of how ports are performing in an effort to keep cargo flowing.

   A coalition of more than 100 business groups, led by the National Retail Federation, sent a letter last week to United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx with recommendations for measuring port performance, an issue that rose to national significance a year ago following a dockworker labor dispute that brought freight movement to a crawl on the U.S. West Coast.
   President Obama last month signed the five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which primarily authorizes about $300 billion in funding for highway infrastructure improvements along with some new money for freight-related projects. Buried within the law, is a provision requiring the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics to collect and annually report performance measures for the nation’s top 25 ports, as measured by total tonnage, containers and dry bulk tonnage.
   The retail industry was among the major supporters pushing for the provision’s inclusion.
   In its letter, the coalition urged the DOT to include the following key performance indicators in the port performance statistics program:
     • Berth Productivity, including the number of containers moved to or from a ship and the number of days a vessel sits at berth;
     • Yard Productivity, including container dwell time and port capacity as measured by container throughput;
     • Truck gate operations, including turn times (from the time a driver gets in a line to enter the terminal), chassis availability, and the impact of so-called “trouble tickets” issued to truckers when cargo is not ready for pick due to various reasons;
     • On-dock rail operations and how quickly trains are moved on and off the terminals.
   “Our interest in performance measures is long-standing, but has been recently spurred by significant congestion and cargo delivery delays at the nation’s largest container ports,” the coalition wrote. “These delays have a ripple effect throughout the supply chain, impacting all of our collective members, as well as the overall U.S. economy.”
   The group also urged the DOT to include cargo shippers among the participants in the working group developing the port performance statistics program.
   “We have been the drivers of discussions about port key performance measures for many years,” it said. “We believe it is imperative for [the Bureau of Transportation Statistics] to take shipper interests into account in developing the port statistics program.”
   Many terminals and ports collect KPIs (key performance indicators) for their internal purposes, but some outsiders complain that the data often doesn’t measure the right activities, is inaccurate, not transparent to other port users and is not standardized.
   The relative perception of poor port performance and cargo delays is often based on anecdotal evidence, according to industry officials. Motor carriers often complain about their drivers waiting multiple hours to enter a terminal, while terminals say that when they add night or weekend shifts few truckers show up to take advantage of the congestion-free time.
   “The reality is we need to make the conversation more objective,” Reade Kidd, director of international logistics at the Home Depot, said last Tuesday on a panel at the Transportation Research Board convention in Washington.
   He compared the current state of affairs to policymakers and economists trying to make decisions about the economy but only talking in generalities rather than using measures such as GDP, unemployment rate, jobless claims, and housing starts.
   “Or imagine waking up in the morning and turning on the weather station and they can’t use Fahrenheit, so everyone makes their own scale” based on where they live, or whether they are cold-natured or hot-natured, said Kidd.
   Having some objective criteria is “paramount to moving the ball forward,” he insisted.

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