Clear the ports’ congestion

Published 9:02 pm Monday, March 23, 2015

Considering Suffolk’s growing investment in the logistics industry — and the correspondingly increasing investment by that industry in the city — bad news for the Port of Virginia is also bad news for Suffolk.

Lately, the news from the ports has been distressing. Containers are stacked higher than they ever were intended to be, truck traffic stretches onto Route 164 while waiting to get to the terminals, ships are being rerouted from one set of terminals to the other, shipments of empty containers are being shut down and some cargo ships have had to be rescheduled.

Port officials say weather problems and holiday schedules combined to wreak havoc on carefully coordinated logistical plans for moving shipping containers in and out of the port facilities in Portsmouth and Norfolk. But weeks after the last of the snow, the cascade effects of those lost days of productivity still have not cleared, even with the additional measures the Virginia Port Authority has put into place.


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Since March 11, the ports have instituted 32 different “congestion mitigation” measures to try to clear the logjam, officials say, but so far success has been limited, and efficiency of port operations has plummeted.

For some of Suffolk’s warehousing and distribution centers — and for manufacturers like International Paper in Franklin — the continuing problems at the port already have begun to affect their own productivity and efficiency, and they will soon begin to affect the bottom line, as well.

Truckers serving International Paper, for instance, used to be able to expect to deliver two container loads of fluff pulp a day from Franklin to the port. But the congestion problems now cost drivers so much time in line that they can only make one complete turn in a day.

Production volume falls, downtime increases and planning and scheduling headaches are on the rise at IP as a result of the port’s problems, a spokesman said last week.

If port officials can’t find a way to restore efficient operations, they stand to lose some significant customers — and a pile of state revenue — if the area’s manufacturers and shippers conclude they should shift their imports and exports to Wilmington, N.C., or Baltimore, Md. The cost of transportation might be higher, but there will come a point at which production gains offset those costs.

Even more directly at risk are some of the area’s trucking companies, whose drivers find themselves either watching their compensation fall while waiting in line at the port or constantly renegotiating terms with their employers, which then are forced to pass along higher shipping rates.

There are no easy solutions to the problem, but quick solutions are necessary if the area is to retain the business it could lose. To that end, the port authority should put together a task force that includes, shippers, transport companies, drivers and port officials to develop a short-term solution that will clear the logjam and — even more important — a long-term plan that ensures this kind of congestion doesn’t happen again.

Virginia port officials like to think the commonwealth will be a good option for the bigger ships that are expected when the Panama Canal expansion is complete. But if the authority doesn’t show it can handle the effects of a little bit of snow, those big Panamax ships will never even slow down as they steam on past Hampton Roads.