Congestion snarls ports

Published 7:44 pm Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shippers and truckers hurt by slow turnaround

A trucking vendor servicing International Paper’s Franklin mill has a daily goal of delivering 50 empty containers to the mill and then returning them to the Port of Virginia, filled with the rolls of fluff pulp that IP ships around the world.

But lately, according to IP spokeswoman Jenny Railey, even 50 containers every day has been an impossibly tall order for the vendor’s 30 drivers, because the port is just too overwhelmed with vessels and backlogged freight.

“Given the congestion at the port, most drivers can only make a single turn per day — picking up an empty container at the port, bringing it to Franklin and returning a full container to the port,” Railey stated in an email.

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“Accordingly, the total number of containers that reach the mill on a daily basis do not reach the intended mark but fall short, in the range of the mid-30s.”

The result, she said, is “great stresses” on the mill’s production employees, involving aspects like volume, downtime, planning and scheduling, and also on the trucking vendor handling the logistics side of the operation.

Among the long-term implications are concerns about IP’s ability to increase production at the once-shuttered Franklin mill.

On the congestion that’s hit the port this year, Joe Harris, its spokesman, said the Virginia Port Authority “regrets the situation, and we have been working tirelessly to correct it.”

The congestion, impacting the state-of-the-art Virginia International Gateway terminal on Route 164, nearby Portsmouth Marine Terminal and also Norfolk International Terminals, is the result of lost productivity due to the holiday schedule and shutdowns due to February’s winter storms, combined with record volume, according to Harris.

“For every lost day of productivity, there may be 10 days of catchup,” Harris said, calling it a “cascading effect.”

Since March 11, the port has announced some 32 “congestion mitigation” measures.

The most recent announcements, on Friday, included reducing the “window for delivery” of exports at NIT and PMT, and stopping empty containers arriving at VIG by rail.

The shutdowns meant five vessels had to be pushed into March, Harris said, bringing an extra 7,000 containers and creating “a large ripple effect.”

Suffolk’s Danny Glover, co-owner of GTL Transport Co. and a member of the Tidewater Motor Truck Association board, said the congestion has cut productivity by at least a third, while others in his industry cite a 50-percent reduction.

Drivers are idling in a queue for far too many of the 14 hours a day they’re allowed to work under DOT regulations, he said.

While his own drivers still get paid, Glover said, many others are owner-operators who earn only when they’re hauling.

“It’s more air pollution and more fuel being burned. Nothing’s positive about it, I can tell you,” said Glover, who noted the congestion is happening nationwide, not just at Virginia port facilities.

While the gridlock means shippers struggle to move cargo in and out of the port, Glover said, there are also demurrage charges to be paid as the vessels spend more time in port.

“It’s just gotten to the boiling point in the past couple of weeks, with trucks backed up on 164,” Glover said. Though the port’s mitigation measures have made some difference, he added, “It hasn’t had enough impact.”

“We are just overflowing with containers and don’t have the resources to deal with it,” he said.

Glover thinks there should have better planning, earlier, to deal with the increasing freight volumes. “We knew the big ships were coming,” he said. “Everyone knew about it, and no one was prepared.”

Some vessel calls have been moved from VIG to the quieter PMT, Harris said, but that’s not as easy as it sounds.

People don’t understand the work involved and the time it takes to move ship calls from one terminal to another, he said, even when the facilities are less than a mile apart.

Harris said he believes three vessel calls at PMT are on the books for the coming week. Cargo-handling assets are being increased there, he said, either by shifting them from other port facilities or buying new assets.

Another TMTA board member, Ed O’Callaghan of Century Express, said the mitigation measures are welcome, but they’re “just a little too late in the game.”

“Trucking companies are moving 50-percent less containers than they used to,” he said. “When we have productivity falling to those levels, the prices (to move freight) are skyrocketing.”

It makes Virginia a lot less attractive for shippers, O’Callaghan said.

Harris said the authority as “had some very candid conversations” with some big port users. “They have voiced their displeasure, and it’s up to us to restore our reputation,” he said.