The last thing a trucking company needs is drivers sitting for hours waiting to pick up shipments at overcrowded ports. But the frustrating reality is that congestion at many ports leads to delayed deliveries, increased driver hours and cuts to the bottom line.
"Congestion has major negative impacts on trucking operations, revenues, emissions and truck drivers," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference, an affiliate of the American Trucking Associations, a lobbying organization based in Arlington, Va.
Here's a look at what's causing the trouble and some tips for coping — and keeping your fleet rolling.
Behind the Gridlock
Numerous factors are contributing to the problem:
- International trade continues to grow and imports outpace exports. That may not change in the near future, despite President Donald Trump's stated priorities about revising trade agreements and imposing higher tariffs.
- Shipbuilders in recent years have increased production of mega-ships, which hold more containers than their predecessors and take longer to load and unload.
- Port infrastructure and chassis supply at inland and sea ports across the U.S. is lagging, while the ongoing shortage of trucks available to move containers is worsening at the busiest ports, such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.
- Labor strife in the shipping industry occasionally erupts at home and abroad, halting port operations at least temporarily.
Improvements Are in Progress
Clogged ports are taking a toll on the industry, which is already stymied by complex regulations and a severe driver shortage. But efforts are underway to improve efficiencies at inland and coastal facilities, said Cathy Morrow Roberson, founder and head analyst at Logistics Trends & Insights, an Atlanta-based research and consulting company.
"Ports are working with terminal operators, truckers and others to reduce wait times, including making sure that there are an adequate number of trucks stationed at ports to move containers between various modes of transportation," she said. "National and state governments are awarding funding to automate facilities. This has resulted in improved efficiency and reduced truck times."
Five Things to Try
Until those improvements become more widespread and ports get easier to navigate, here are some things you can do to help get your fleet back into high gear.
1. There's an App for That
Mobile apps are making life easier for motor carriers:
- DrayQ can determine the optimal time to enter the ports of Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.
- StreetSmart allows dispatchers and drivers to exchange empty cargo containers with street-turn partners outside of the Port of Oakland.
- DrayLink connects drivers, shippers, terminal operators and government authorities so they can coordinate and improve freight movement. Currently available at the ports of Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.
- GeoStamp enables users to capture real-time logistics data within a certain geographic area. "Drayage companies are using this subscription-based service to manage truck dispatching," said Roberson.
2. Surf Websites and Social Media
Some facilities, including the Port of Virginia, provide turn times and other operational alerts. Crunching these numbers can uncover ideal pickup and drop-off times.
"If there is good online data covering turn times, gate processing times and terminal processing status, motor carriers can alter dispatch orders to more efficiently move their trucks to avoid congested areas," Whalen said.
Check to see if ports have webcams so you can monitor traffic flows. And pay attention to their social media feeds, where many post wait times and other pertinent status updates.
3. Make an Appointment
A terminal at the Port of New York and New Jersey is the latest — along with Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland in California, and Vancouver in British Columbia — to require trucker appointments for certain times of day. Some ports offer discounted gate fees during off-peak hours in hopes of lessening congestion; check your facilities for more information.
4. Keep an Eye on Compensation
Port congestion is exacerbating the driver shortage, according to Whalen, who said frustration caused by delays can be the final straw that pushes drivers to leave the industry.
Keeping drivers happy with competitive wages and more attractive work hours (such as reduced weekend and overnight trips) won't directly mitigate port congestion, but it can improve driver retention — and veteran drivers are better suited to deal with port predicaments.
5. Voice Your Concerns
The federal government has promised big spending on infrastructure. Call your congressional representatives to let them know how improving port facilities would benefit the economy. Communicate with shippers, port operators, your own staff and other stakeholders to exhaust all options for improving efficiencies.
You can learn more about port congestion causes and solutions in the most recent Federal Maritime Commission report.
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