Joseph Bonney, February 12, 2014, Journal of Commerce
Truck backups like this one last summer have returned at the Port of New York and New JerseyTruck backups like this one last summer have returned at the Port of New York and New Jersey
Drayage company owners and managers say this winter’s dysfunction at New York-New Jersey container terminals has exploded into a crisis that in some ways is worse than Hurricane Sandy’s devastation at the port.
“This past month, in my opinion, has been the most stressful, the most horrible I have seen in this port,” said Jeff Bader, president of Hillside, N.J.-based Golden Carriers and of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers. “The productivity and money each of us has lost, or not made, can bring you to tears.”
The association decided not to bother issuing its monthly gradings of container terminals during January because all of them were “horrible,” Bader said.
After losing most of two weeks for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the East Coast’s largest port has been hit with a series of winter storms that have temporarily closed terminals and slowed operations.
Mile-long lines outside terminals have been common, and slow turn times have combined with International Longshoremen’s Association labor shortages to create shortages of usable chassis.
Motor carriers at the Bi-State meeting on Feb. 11 said they sympathized with the terminals’ weather problems, but the snowstorms merely added to existing problems at a port several described as “broken.”
“In the 35 years I’ve been doing this I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now,” said Joseph Noonan, president of Marine Container Services in Newark. “Customers are calling me night and day with complaints.”
Evans Papantourous, owner of EP Transportation and Logistics, agreed. He said he has been in the business since 1980 and has never seen anything to compare with the the current chaos at the port.
“This has gone on for too long,” he said. “How can you plan? You don’t know whether a driver’s going to wait three hours or five hours outside the gate, or if the line’s going to shut off, or if the line of trucks is going to be out to the turnpike.”
Papantourous said one of his customers plans to switch to Baltimore because of delays at New York-New Jersey. Other truckers said, and cargo owners have confirmed, that they are considering Norfolk, which also has had recent problems with congestion.
Rob Movshin, terminal manager at C&K Trucking in South Kearny, N.J., noted efforts by owner-operators to use social media to organize a work stoppage on Feb. 12. “We have all the conditions for a driver strike, which would be catastrophic,” he said.
Papantourous, Noonan, Movshin and other truckers said one way to break the logjam at New York-New Jersey would be to keep gates open longer. Maher Terminals has stayed open two weekends recently, and several terminals have kept gates open late to clear backlogs.
Although marine terminals operate 24/7, truck gates normally are open only 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Terminal officials have been reluctant to keep gates open longer because of the cost of ILA labor.
“Sometimes you have to spend money to make things right,” Papantourous said.
Bader said some drayage operators are considering surcharges to blunt the impact of costs they’ve been unable to pass to customers. He said the Bi-State association plans to seek arbitration to negate members’ per-diem charges for containers that drivers were unable to return to terminals on time.
Added costs have hit motor carriers with huge costs, Bader said. “Take one load that’s supposed to cost you X for pickup and delivery to the customer. If that cost becomes X times two, four or five, there is no way a trucking company can survive,” he said.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has organized a broad-based industry task force to recommend improvements. The task force is scheduled to report in June.
Tom Heimgartner, president of Best Transportation in Port Newark and a member of the task force’s subcommittee on terminals, said he has low expectations. He said two attendees at the subcommittee’s meeting last week were delayed 45 minutes by traffic at the port.
“Come June, I think there’ll be a nice report that those of you still in business can read,” he said. “I think it’s going to be too little, too late.”
Bader expressed a different view. “I’m a little more optimistic. I have to be, because this is the last straw,” he said. “It’s got all the players in the room, so hopefully it will get something done.”