The port agency for Seattle and Tacoma is encouraging terminals to use extended hours, “peel-off” piles and street turns to ease congestion.
Container shipping terminals in Seattle and Tacoma are beginning to offer extended hours during which shippers and consignees can pick up and drop off cargo.
The Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), which includes terminals in both ports, has agreed to provide $2 million in funds to help offset the additional cost of extended hours under a program that begins July 1 and continues through Dec. 31, 2020.
“The biggest challenge we’ve had with congestion has to do with the gate operations and the yard operations. By extending the operating hours, it will spread volumes out over a larger time frame and I expect that the congestion challenges will probably not be eliminated but I think softened,” said John Wolfe, the chief executive officer of NWSA. “So we’re really excited about it.”
SSA Marine, which operates Terminal 18 (T-18) in Seattle, plans to begin offering five “night gates” per week for export containers starting on July 1. T-18 is the largest of three terminals that SSA operates in Seattle, the others being T-30 and T-5. (T-5 handles domestic cargo for Matson’s services to Alaska.)
Wolfe (pictured above) said the agency is in conversation with terminals in Tacoma about extended hours, including the Husky Terminal that Ports America operates, the Washington United Terminal and Pierce County Terminal.
NWSA is offering financial support to terminal operators with extended hours in three different tiers: For those offering two extended gates during the peak season, which it defines as July 1 to Dec. 31, during 2019 and 2020, NWSA is offering $200,000 in reimbursement; for those that offer three extended gates during the 2019 and 2020 peak seasons, it is offering $300,000; and for those offering in 2019 and 2020 at least three extended gates in the peak season and two during the off-season running from Jan. 1 to June 30, $600,000 in support.
Companies can offer extended hours in the evening as SSA is doing from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., but companies also would be able to offer gates on the weekends.
Ed DeNike, the president of SSA Containers, said the $600,000 will help offset the cost of starting up the operation.
However, effective Aug. 5, SSA will start charging a $38 per export laden container that loads to a vessel. The fee, which will be used to offset the higher cost of a second shift, will be assessed to the beneficial cargo owner or trucking company, regardless of when the container arrives, day shift or night shift, said NWSA.
DeNike said the charge is similar to one imposed at its terminals in California to support extended hours. He said SSA’s intention is to offer extended hours in Seattle on a permanent basis.
Pierce County Terminal, where Evergreen provides most of the cargo volume, is offering “hoot gates” — extended hours that run from 3 to 8 a.m.
NWSA reported its cargo volumes for the first five months of 2019 this week. Through the end of May, NWSA terminals handled 1,572,028 TEUs, including 284,081 TEUs moving to and from domestic destinations in Alaska and Hawaii.
International container volumes for January through May were up 10.8% to 1,287,947 TEUs, though much of the increase was due to a 44.9% increase in empty containers handled — 341,104 TEUs in the first five months.
Full import containers were up 6.5% to 569,672 in the first five months, a 6.5% increase, while export container volume was down 3.7% in the first five months to 377,171 TEUs.
Wolfe said, “Volumes have been really healthy and I would say one of the advantages we offer in the marketplace today is that we do have excess capacity with our terminals, so there are opportunities for cargo owners to push more volume through our gateway. Not every gateway can say that.”
However, the port is concerned about the effect tariffs are having on agriculture and seafood exports to China. NWSA exports to China were down 32% in 2018 compared to 2017 and were down 21% in the first three months of this year.
While terminal operators make individual decisions on how to operate their facilities, Wolfe said the port has encouraged the terminals to look at so-called “peel-off” piles as one way to reduce congestion at terminals.
In order to reduce the time that longshoremen have to spend digging through piles of containers to find a particular inbound container that a trucker has been dispatched to collect, shippers agree to have containers placed in a special pile and a group of truckers can take any one of the containers in the pile and bring it to a warehouse or other facility.
As each trucker arrives, the longshoremen just remove or “peel off” the closest container on the pile and load it onto the chassis of the next trucker in line. The productivity of longshoremen is greatly increased and truckers are able to move in and out of the terminal more quickly.
Another technique that terminals can use to improve is “street turns,” said Wolfe. “We’re starting to see some momentum building.”
He explained that in many cases, after unloading the contents of a container at a local warehouse or cross-dock facility, the container is returned empty to the port and then picked up at a later time for an export move.
If instead the the container is “turned on the street” and brought from the importer’s location to an exporter who loads it, congestion at the container terminal can be reduced.
“During our peak season planning and when we’re meeting with industry stakeholders, the street turn concept is on the table for discussion and we’re working with the shipping lines, the terminal operators and the cargo owners to try to find ways to collaborate in that way to help the gateway function at a higher level,” said Wolfe.
A recent study by the consulting firm Mercator detailed the amount of containerized cargo moving through West Coast Canadian ports that is bound for or originates in the U.S. For Vancouver, it was 1.2 million TEUs or 27.4% percent of the port’s container volume and for Prince Rupert, it was 624,300 TEUs or 60.3% of its volume.
The Journal of Commerce reported last year that statistics from its sister service PIERS found that Vancouver and Prince Rupert have increased their share of Asian imports in the Pacific Northwest region to 63% in May 2018, up from 58.2% in 2014, while Seattle-Tacoma’s share has dropped to 37%.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), said this week during a U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee hearing that “there is a strong incentive to use the Port of Vancouver rather than the Port of Seattle” because of the Harbor Maintenance Tax and suggested that with trains carrying cargo to the U.S. Midwest from Vancouver, “maybe that tax ought to apply when it crosses the border. I don’t think the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) took that up, but it is an issue that harms the industry on the West Coast.”
Asked about competition from Canadian ports, Wolfe said, “I tend to want to look at ourselves and how we continue to improve upon our offerings rather than focus on what others are doing because we don’t control that. … As long as we take care of what’s within our control, we’ll grow our volume.”
Wolfe said about half the containerized cargo moving through terminals in Seattle and Tacoma is intermodal, but he said that split is becoming more challenging to track because in addition to “intact intermodal” in which ocean containers are put on trains and moved to inland destinations, the contents of many ocean containers are stripped at nearby cross-dock facilities and moved in domestic containers to the final destination.
In addition to the benefit of moving more freight in the larger domestic containers (it’s often said that the contents of three 40-foot containers can be repacked in two of the wider, longer 53-foot domestic containers), transloading also allows shippers to postpone the decision from where to allocate cargo until a shipment arrives in the U.S. instead of where it is loaded in Asia.
For example, if a particular article of clothing is selling well in Atlanta and not Chicago, a department store can allocate more of the shipment to its stores Georgia rather than sending it to Illinois.
Wolfe believes one of the drivers of that trend is the “emergence of e-commerce. The consumer marketplace is changing the way these logistics companies move freight and so we’re seeing more and more of the decision-making about where that cargo’s going to move pushed further out into the supply chain.”
NWSA is planning to spend more than $300 million on improvements to T-5 in Seattle, making it a “signature terminal” for Seattle, able to serve ultra-large containerships. Combined with private investment, more than $500 million will be spent improving the 185-acre terminal.
Terminal 5 will be operated by a joint venture of SSA Terminals and Terminal Investment Ltd., which is affiliated with container carrier Mediterranean Shipping Co., when the first phase of the project is completed in 2021.
This summer work will begin on removing old pilings at the T-5 in preparation for improvements for its berths and the installation of larger cranes. Because of the impact such work could have on fisheries, it must be done between July and February.
The port also has invested heavily in the Husky Terminal in Tacoma, operated by Ports America. In March, four super-post-panamax container cranes arrived in the port and are expected to begin operating shortly. They join four similar cranes that have been in operation for about a year.