Watch Now

Record cargo volumes flowing through Southern California ports despite congestion

Long Beach leader says US needs to catch up as ‘24/7 is already the standard’ in Asia

Despite San Pedro Bay congestion, cargo records are being set at the ports of LA and Long Beach. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Despite the San Pedro Bay congestion and transportation and warehouse capacity crunches, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are moving cargo — a lot of cargo. The Port of LA had its busiest September ever, while Long Beach had its second-busiest. 

The Port of LA handled 903,865 twenty-foot equivalent units in September. That is up 2.3% compared to the previous September record set last year of 883,625 TEUs. 

Through the end of September, 2021 volume at the Port of LA totaled 8,176,917 TEUs, a 26% increase from the same period last year. 

“Despite the global supply chain challenges, the Port of Los Angeles and its partners continue to deliver record amounts of cargo,” said Executive Director Gene Seroka in a statement Wednesday. “This is made possible by the extraordinary effort of our longshore workers, truck drivers, terminal operators and so many others on the waterfront and in our region’s warehouses.”

All cogs in the supply chain have come under intense scrutiny during the port congestion crisis that spurred President Joe Biden to call for 24/7 operations at the ports of LA and Long Beach. Seroka singled out the railroads for stepping up in the time of need. 

“Of particular note is the great work by BNSF and Union Pacific, which have reduced the rail backlog in half in the last month and by two-thirds over the last two months,” Seroka said. “We’ve got more work to do but we’ve made significant progress due to the collaborative efforts with our Class I railroads.”

Loaded imports in September totaled 468,059 TEUs, about the same as last year. Loaded exports, however, dropped 42% to 75,714 TEUs compared to September 2020. The Port of LA said that was the lowest number of exports handled in a month since 2002. 

Empty containers increased 28% year-over-year to 360,092 TEUs due to the continued demand in Asia, the port said. 

Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said it had already expanded operations at one of its terminals to overnight shifts in September but welcomed the White House’s involvement in the congestion crisis. 

“Before this unprecedented cargo surge began, we believed 24/7 operations were the future,” Cordero said. “After all, consumers can shop online at any time, whether it’s at 4 p.m. or 4 a.m., and 24/7 is already the standard at our partner ports in Asia. The supply chain truly never stops now, and we’re thankful to the Biden administration for using its influence to ensure cargo is always moving.”

The Port of Long Beach had its second-busiest September on record, down 5.9% from the same month in 2020, “demonstrating the need for extended work hours within the supply chain as unprecedented numbers of vessels wait off the coast to unload cargo,” it said. 

The port moved 748,472 TEUs in September. Imports decreased 8.7% year-over-year, to 370,230 TEUs, while exports dipped 1.6%, to 110,787 TEUs. Empty containers moved through the port dropped 3.6%, to 267,456 TEUs. 

Through the end of September, 2021 volume totaled 7,094,849 TEUs, up 24.3% from the first nine months of 2020. 

“We are having capacity issues due to the unprecedented number of containers waiting to move off the terminals, while warehouses have little to no room to accommodate this ongoing spike in cargo moving through our port,” Cordero said. “This is not just about a record number of ships waiting off the coast. We are working with state, federal, local and industry partners to address issues with the entire supply chain that have finally caught up with us.” 

Port of Long Beach officials have said deepening and widening its harbor channels would lead to air pollution reduction, improved vessel navigation and national economic benefits of almost $21 million annually.

Last week the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on a Port of Long Beach deep-draft navigation study that paves the way for identified projects to compete for federal funding. 

“The deepening and widening of these channels is of vital importance to the nation’s economy,” Cordero said. “Keep in mind we are the nation’s second-busiest port by container volume. Increasing the efficiency and speed that cargo is handled here has benefits to the whole supply chain reaching far beyond Southern California.” 

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., whose district includes the Port of Long Beach, said the deepening and widening work is “absolutely critical” for both the port and the U.S. supply chain system.

“The expansion of the navigation channels at the port will allow larger vessels to maneuver safely in the port and berth in areas previously unavailable,” Lowenthal said. “More berthing space means more efficient and quicker loading and unloading of cargo, thus increasing the capacity and efficiency of supply chains overall.

“This project will not just help the port, not just our communities by reducing emissions, not just our environment, but businesses and communities at every point along the supply chain system. I will work in Congress to make sure that the deep-draft navigation project moves forward without delay.”

The study recommends deepening the Port of Long Beach approach channel from 76 feet to 80 feet; constructing an approach channel to Pier J South to a depth of 55 feet; deepening portions of the West Basin from 50 feet to 55 feet; and performing structural improvements to breakwaters at Pier J to allow for depths of 55 feet. 

Peak shipping season in with a roar at Port of Long Beach

Hapag-Lloyd and CMA CGM ‘temporarily’ steering 2 services away from Savannah

Hapag-Lloyd CEO: ‘We are probably in the peak of the problems’

Click for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.