We Were Warned About the Ports

In July 2015, the Federal Maritime Commission, a federal agency with little name recognition and even less influence, released a report sounding the alarm about the state of America’s ports. A congestion crisis had been building for years and was fast becoming untenable; even the country’s relatively tepid economic-growth rate was straining against decades of disinvestment at its most critical trading hubs. Chassis weren’t available, trucks couldn’t get in or out, and terminals stayed perpetually clogged.

For many years, the system succeeded in reducing prices and upping profits to the companies involved. “For a really long time, it was really cheap,” said Mercogliano. “That deregulation was what everybody loved.” But the price of cheapness was consolidation. As containers and ships got bigger, the ports had to get bigger as well. Ports dredged furiously to stay passable for increasingly deep-riding ships—the Port of Los Angeles isn’t even a deep bay by nature—and strained to clear out other obstacles like bridges, which had to be raised, to accommodate ships carrying as many as 16,000 containers each. On the West Coast, this meant that smaller ports like San Diego, which lacked the rail infrastructure to get cargo eastward, and Oakland, with its famously bridged bay, were passed over.

That’s Sal Mercogliano that’s quoted above.

Here is the Maritime Commission’s 2015 report:


The report clearly lays out the problems associated with chassis and I’m not surprised that drivers on $10 to $12 per hour don’t have medical insurance. Do they live under a bridge when they are not driving?

I think Seattle is the only US port where it’s possible to unload containers off ships and directly onto rail cars. Although I don’t know how much they actually do it.

What is needed is to build automated ports like Rotterdam, and others, that require a lot less labor.

Obviously, West Coast ports need to be able to unload containers directly onto eastbound rail cars without any need for stacking, double and triple handling, container chassis or truck drivers.

The only thing holding major Improvements back is the longshoremen’s union.

We need a President with balls enough to tell the Longshoremen to get out of the way, or else.

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A Margaret Thatcher reincarnation??

We’d be lucky to find someone half that good.

Ronald Reagan did a pretty good job with the air traffic controllers.

So you guys are for the quashing of labor unions? Do you think they’ll stop with the Longshoremen?
They’ve known for a long time what they needed to do, they just didn’t want to spend the money on it. Now the fix is to take it out on the lower workers rather then the port managers.


I support the unions but the argument that the US longshoremen’s union are working to their full potential or efficiency is a non starter. Four guys sitting on stools at each corner casing putting on and removing shoes is not the picture of efficiency. Even the crane designs have moved on to the point where most of this work can be done on platforms built onto the crane with smaller feed gantries built off the back to transition all the way to the berth. Shortening the time to cycle moves.

Take a ship to other ports around the world and you quickly find out what works and what doesn’t. It’s time for the USA to finally come in line with the rest of the world as far as logistics is concerned. That includes some tough love to the longshoremen unions to either adapt to the new pace as they did in the past or get left behind.

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Yeah but nobody is making that argument. The choke-point of the entire operation is evidently the trucks / chassis situation.

As far as modernization / automation the longshoreman unions would agree given sufficient incentives, severance pay or what have you. That’s how the terminals were able to win concessions when containerization eliminated jobs,


There are only so many transportation dollars to be had.

The longshoremen have been taking most of that money and throwing the tugboat guys under the bus for a long time.

The longshoremen have also made short sea shipping in the US impossible.

The sooner the longshoremen are cut down to size the better.

The longshoremen have fought off loading double stack container trains on the docks. No chassis or truck drivers would be needed for eastbound containers if they went straight from the ship onto the trains.

The longshoremen have also fought off all the automation that is found in container yards at modern ports in other parts of the world.

If there is a shortage of truckers on the docks, it’s because the longshoremen are not letting the truckers make market rates.

It may have changed now, but a few years ago all the container ships stopped calling in Portland because the longshoremen made it uneconomic. It was cheaper to unload Portland containers in Seattle and truck them to Portland.

The bottleneck at American ports is the longshoremen.

It’s not just longshoremen If you have driven the Mass Pike into Boston you might have noticed all the rail cars and containers at the Kenmore toll plaza The double stack cars have to be placed on single cars because the double stacks cannot make it through the underpasses and tunnels from there to South Boston.

In New York/New Jersey, the Goethals Bridge had to be rebuilt to allow larger container ships to pass.

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Seattle is such a long, slow slog to get into port but yes, the tracks are right there, but I always saw more trucks than trains.

Cape Flattery to Seattle is a good 140nm or so (plus another 25 to Tacoma) but the vast majority of it can be done at sea speed and without any pesky obstacles like bridges or tidal restricted shallow water (except in the waterways).

When put into that context and combined with the fact that Puget Sound is a day closer to Asia than the CA ports, it’s not that out of the way.

For intermodal shipments, the chokepoint in WA is the Cascade Tunnel over Stevens Pass. The ventilation system can only handle so many trains per day (25 I think?). Stampede Pass doesn’t have such a restriction but the tunnel clearances there don’t allow for double stacks. The only other route is south then east along the Columbia River gorge, but that mostly serves westbound loaded grain trains.

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i didn’t realize it could be done sea speed, i know tankers need a tug or two? and a speed limit I believe. Refreshing news, I’d not thought of the earth curvature in the trip, still, it never looked all that busy to me compared to other places.

Well, the Northwest Seaport Alliance (the combined Ports of Seattle and Tacoma) is the fifth largest container gateway in North America after LA/LB, NY/NJ and (very recently) Savannah not to mention all of the non-container trades and domestic (HI and AK) trade as well, a significant portion of which is done by tug/barge. The pilots average about 7500 jobs per year or about 20 per day. The area is so big with ports all over the place that the traffic gets spread out to the point that it doesn’t look as dense as other areas do.

Tankers require escorts when loaded but the only speed limit is in Rosario Strait (and other areas east of there) when they’re tethered. Escorted (non-tethered) tankers in other locations can go whatever speed does not outrun the escort tug. The majority of the tanker traffic is Jones Act and not coming from overseas anyways. Oregon has no refineries so, in Puget Sound, it’s mostly loaded crude ships in and product out with a significant amount of it to CA and Mexico.

Non-escorted vessels have no speed limit other than for subjective wake control at certain locations/tidal heights. Most often, the only slow down is to pick up the pilot in Port Angeles then back up to sea speed until approaching the harbor.

More to the original point of the post though: the obscene amount of money that has been poured into what were always somewhat podunk ports to allow them to shoehorn in these massive container ships is crazy. A cohesive strategy would be to fund the development of a handful of mega ports on each coast and focus on making them most efficient from sea to end destination. There are a lot of stakeholders along the way all wanting their slice of the pie, though, and that seems to be where it all breaks down even before others (like environmentalists) get involved.

A huge bone of contention out west is that (other than on the Columbia River and parts of SF) very little maintenance dredging is required, yet all maritime cargos (including domestic) calling at US ports are subject to a federal harbor maintenance fee that goes mostly towards the insane amount of dredging that’s constantly required in GOM and some east coast ports. That fee doesn’t help ports out here much at all. Puget Sound in particular requires very little maintenance dredging (just a bit in the harbor waterways) and, for container ship destinations, has no overhead restrictions that require multi million dollar projects to raise bridges or other enormous feats. Getting the ships in here is relatively easy. What happens after that is the problem…

Also, for the record, Tacoma has on dock rail at a couple terminals and I’m 99% sure a few terminals in LA/LB do too.


Ahhhh but with the US having individual states ports authorities the hopes of a cohesive strategy are simply non starters. I’m not saying other countries don’t have ports fighting for cargo throughput, but the American model of individual states operating their ports for profit in competition with nearby ports from other states will simply not allow this. Just take a look at the port they’ve been talking about building on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River to tell you how ridiculous things have become.