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US ports show optimism and caution

The shadow of an economic slowdown is weighing on some US ports, while others remain optimistic.

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US ports show optimism and caution

Contrasting statements were issued this week from the Ports of Oakland and Charleston.


In Charleston the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) remains upbeat, reporting a “strong start to fiscal year 2020” and the “busiest July in Port history at container terminals and inland ports”. Throughput at the Wando Welch and North Chareslton terminals was up 5% in July from the year prior to hit 210,542 TEU.


On the rail side inland Port Greer has its second-busiest month and strongest July ever with 15,338 rail moves, up 57% from this time last year. Inland Port Dillon, now in its second year of operation, reported 2,889 rail moves in July, up 122% from a year ago when operations were ramping up.


“We accomplished so much in fiscal year 2019, including record cargo volumes and rail moves. We are excited to see fiscal year 2020 starting off so strong,” S.C. Ports Authority president and CEO Jim Newsome said.


The same sunny outlook certainly is not shared by everyone, with the Dow falling this week after threats of more tariffs on Chinese imports from President Trump, and counter threats from China. The SCPA, however, believes it can increase its market share. “In fiscal 2020, we will work to grow our cargo volumes, particularly with increased retail cargo and distribution center presence, to support our ongoing infrastructure projects,” Newsome said. “In 2021, we will have the deepest harbor on the East Coast and the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal — the only new container terminal in the U.S. — will open in North Charleston.”


On the US West Coast the Port of Oakland put out a much more muted statement about the pending peak import season. “Uncertainty clouds the peak season container shipping outlook with more threatened tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S. looming,” the port said. Martime Director John Driscoll stressed that the port is operating efficiently, “ships are getting in-and-out on time and cargo is moving without delay”, and he did not expect that to change in peak season.


But the Oakland declined to issue its own peak season forecast. It noted that “West Coast peak season containerised import growth is likely to be 1-to-3 percent, trade analysts say. That’s modest compared to big jumps last peak season when importers front-loaded against expected tariffs. The wildcard is a new round of tariffs proposed by the Trump Administration that could take effect next month”.


Peak season normally puts US West Coast terminals, railroads and truckers under pressure but Oakland said it is not feeling any impact at the moment. Ships are “routinely arriving on time this summer and completing cargo operations within 24 hours”. Import boxes are generally available within 1-3 days of vessel discharge.


Truck turn times at Oakland’s three international marine terminals have actually fallen. They ranged from 67-to-92 minutes in January (typically a quiet month) and are now at 59-to-75 minutes, with less queuing of trucks waiting to enter terminals. “Night gates and appointment systems have helped shrink the queues. Lines still form in the morning before gates open and again during lunch hour. There are also lines Mondays and Tuesdays following weekend vessel arrivals. But terminals for the most part are working efficiently to ease back-ups”.


Oakland is continuing to operate night gates. As reported previously, Terminal 18 in Seattle has abandoned night gates temporarily after demand fell away, mostly due to a delay in export volume. The port of Oakland said currently about 25-to-30% of truck transactions are occurring at night Monday-through-Thursday, and “marine terminal operators are urging drivers to haul more cargo at night to ease daytime crowding”.

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