Congestion at the already-clogged ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has gotten worse in just the past month, demonstrated by rising truck turn and container dwell times, more ships waiting at berth, and anecdotal reports from individual terminal operators. Worsening delays came despite terminals working longer hours.
The overriding problem, terminal operators say, is that six straight months of near-record cargo volumes have congested the entire Southern California supply chain beyond its capacity. Terminal operators can’t vacate laden import containers fast enough to keep up with the import surge and make room for the discharge of new arrivals.
“There is no room on the terminals,” said Anthony Otto, president of Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT).
Key performance metrics for truck turn times, container dwell times at the terminals, vessels at anchor, and street dwell times for chassis at warehouses located as far as 60 miles from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex tell the story.
Average truck turn times at the 12 container terminals that make up the LA-LB complex rose to 93 minutes in December, according to Harbor Trucking Association (HTA) truck mobility data, up from the record low of 58 minutes in June. The HTA began measuring turn times in 2013.
The record low turn times came when US imports from Asia plunged during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The large increase in turn times over the past few months demonstrates how rapidly the terminals went from fluid conditions early in 2020 to virtual gridlock by the fall.
While truck turn times reflect congestion at the terminal gates, increasing container dwell times highlight the congestion in the terminal yards. Otto noted that containers are sitting at the terminals for seven to eight days, compared with less than three days when import volumes were much lighter last spring and early summer.
That is an indication container terminals are buckling under container exchanges from mega-ships that continue to discharge record imports week after week, said Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association. “It’s more volume than the terminals were designed to handle,” LaBar said.
However, for historical perspective, December’s turn times are actually better than they were in the fall of 2014 and winter of 2015 when the average turn times were 100 minutes or greater for six consecutive months due to the labor disruptions during the West Coast longshore contract negotiations.
Also, LaBar noted that in December the HTA extended the geo-fence line at each terminal from which the turn times are measured to reflect the longer truck queues that formed last month. That move obviously was a source of concern from the terminal operators because it exaggerated somewhat the comparison of December’s numbers with previous months, but the HTA felt it was necessary to truly capture the time truckers were spending in long truck queues, LaBar said.
And the ships keep arriving in port. There were 59 container ships in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex on Monday, with 25 of the vessels being worked and 34 at anchor awaiting berthing space, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Another 15 container ships are scheduled to arrive in port through Thursday.
All terminals struggling, but for different reasons
The truest indication of the impact six straight months of imports from Asia totaling about 800,000 TEU per month is having on the port complex is that all 12 of the container terminals are struggling to handle the volumes. That includes terminals that had consistently had the lowest truck turn times in the harbor.
In December, the automated LBCT terminal, which for the past year had sub-40-minute average turn times, spiked to 94 minutes as import volumes surged. LBCT in the spring and summer months had been averaging 21,000 container lifts per week. In November and December, LBCT averaged 30,000 lifts per week, Otto said.
“Our times used to be stellar. The fact is freight is not moving now,” he said.
TraPac, the only other fully automated terminal in the port complex, had been registering sub-60-minute turn times last spring and summer. In December, it was the only terminal in the harbor to experience a lower turn time. Its 73-minute average was down from 80 minutes in November. Nevertheless, December’s turn times were higher than the 45- to 55-minute turn times last spring.
The Matson-SSA terminal had likewise been consistently recording sub-40-minute turn times, but in December the average turn time increased to 46 minutes. “I’m not hearing complaints about Matson. It’s due to increased volume,” LaBar said.
The three terminals SSA Marine operates in Long Beach — Matson-SSA, Pier A, and PCT — all outperformed the port-wide average in December. That’s in large part thanks to “dray-off” programs at the terminals, under which SSA moves inbound containers upon discharge from vessels to off-dock yards for overnight storage, thereby freeing up terminal space for more inbound loads.
“The dray-off model really helps from an efficiency standpoint,” LaBar said.
However, other terminal operators that may wish to duplicate SSA’s successful model are encountering pushback from some cities in Southern California that don’t want trucks in their communities.
LaBar said the HTA has met “ad nauseam” with community leaders explaining how the increased tax revenue from container storage yards could help to replace revenues they are losing from reduced retail activity at local shopping malls due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), but to no avail.
The two largest container terminals in the harbor, APM Terminals in Los Angeles and Total Terminals International (TTI) in Long Beach, had the longest turn times in December, with APM at 137 minutes and TTI at 111.
Labor shortages rampant due to COVID-19
LaBar said the busiest terminals have been especially challenged in getting sufficient workers during the COVID-19 pandemic because the allotment of longshore workers is rationed due to declining labor availability. “The labor shortages are COVID-related,” he said.
The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents West Coast employers, has steering committees in each region that assign labor based on the history of demand as well as the current demand for labor in each region, Jim McKenna, PMA president, told JOC.com. “So far these guys have been very accurate,” he said.
However, the total labor force in Southern California has been reduced because of COVID-19, which means fewer longshore workers are being assigned to each terminal, McKenna said. “Today, 150 to 170 longshoremen are quarantined [in Southern California],” he said. That includes dockworkers who tested positive and others who have come in contact with someone who tested positive, he added. Workers in every area of the terminal, including the maintenance and repair longshore workers who repair chassis, have been affected.
However, McKenna said, those longshore workers who are able to work are spending more time on the job. Each longshore worker in Los Angeles-Long Beach worked on average 5.2 shifts per week in December, up from 4.5 shifts in December 2019. In addition, the PMA and International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been adding 30 skilled equipment operators each month since last fall. “It’s an ongoing process,” McKenna said.
Chassis shortages continue
Terminal operators say another critical element causing port congestion is a chassis shortage that has been ongoing since last summer. A spokesperson for APM Terminals said Pier 400 in Los Angeles opened on many days in December “with zero chassis.”
“This results in truck drivers sitting idle inside the terminal waiting for the next chassis to become available,” the spokesperson said.
Key performance indicators on the website of the Pool of Pools, which is operated by DCLI, TRAC Intermodal, and Flexi-Van Leasing, show that street dwell times, which measure the time chassis sit at warehouses, averaged 7.8 days on Monday, or about twice the average of three to four days recorded in the first half of 2020. Out-of-service chassis at the 12 container terminals and four intermodal rail ramps totaled 3,835, according to the Pool of Pools website.
Ron Joseph, executive vice president and COO at DCLI, said the three intermodal equipment operators (IEPs) had reduced the out-of-service chassis to about 3,500 in early November by working extended hours and weekends. The terminals were closed for Christmas and New Year’s, so employers lost two workdays over the holidays. That affected all operations within the terminals, including the maintenance and repair dockworkers who fix out-of-service chassis. However, terminal hours and overtime work are being extended in the new year, so M&R work will increase and out-of-service chassis will be reduced, Joseph said.
Also on a positive note, Otto said work continues on the final phase of an LBCT expansion project that will add much-needed terminal and berth capacity to the port complex. In addition to adding a third vessel berth, LBCT is enlarging its container yard, and installing ship-to-shore cranes. Capacity will be phased in beginning this spring, and when the work is completed by the end of 2021, the terminal’s annual capacity will be 3.3 million TEU.
However, carriers, non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOs), and industry analysts project elevated import volumes well into the year, which means the largest US port complex could be grappling with congestion for some months to come.
“This December there was no rest, no time to recharge our batteries, because we were all so busy,” LaBar said, adding there is no relief in sight. “I’m being told to expect volumes to remain this strong at least through July.”
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.