When Tom Ward, of JWD Group in Oakland, took the podium at the Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference in Los Angeles, he also took a pot shot at the weakest link in the intermodal supply chain. The terminal gate connections to railroads and highways, and not the terminals, are the system’s major chokepoints, he stated. Noting that construction projects, such as the proposed near-dock rail yards and the I-710 expansion program, would not provide relief for at least 10 years, Mr. Ward made it clear that, because 2005’s cargo volumes will be so burdensome, outmoded terminal gates will be responsible for ever-worsening congestion along the entire delivery chain.

Others at the conference cited shortcomings all throughout the transportation system and offered a broad spectrum of remedies for this rusting intermodal supply chain. These thoughtful suggestions will be as unproductive as they are imaginative, however, because all of them fall short of the mark. Mr. Ward, however, is dead on target. The gates, he says, are the bottlenecks in the system. That’s what Jean Godwin meant when she gave us a perfect description of this farce. She was clinical. “It’s like trying to fit a 16-inch pipe into a 4-inch opening”, she said. But she called attention to this primitive arrangement more than four years ago, and except for the passage of time, and some repeated and ineffective suggestions along the way, nothing has changed since then in spite of the fact that immediate help is continually being sought.

On second thought, maybe some noteworthy events have taken place. There was the lockout in 2002, of course, but that didn’t help matters any. And in the 2004 cargo inundation some several thousand employees were hired to provide relief for stressed out port operations, but let’s be honest about that. Foresight didn’t bring about that move. Panic did. And then there was the plan for Pier J. That looked pretty good, as long as it was on paper, but it looks now as though it will stay on paper for a little while longer.

And speaking of piers, what about PierPass? We commented on this concept back on November 22nd, and we see no reason to revise our assessment of this upcoming event. ILWU President James Spinosa has reservations, however, and he made them known at the TPM Conference. Mr. Spinosa stated that the ILWU wants to be assured that PierPass operations do not bypass their contract with the Pacific Maritime Association. “The PMA is our employer. PierPass is not our employer”, said Mr. Spinosa. PierPass, he said, seems to be “an employer association that is wearing two hats and building technology … we’re uncomfortable with that, and we’re trying to understand that. We have a meeting set up with the PMA to understand what this is all about”. [Stay tuned.]

It all comes down to gates, doesn’t it? Some officials recognize this, but the majority of those in the supply chain don’t seem to have a clue. Blame the longshoremen, the truckers, the railroads, the highways … any scapegoat will do. This website has described a patented storage and retrieval system that eliminates gates, and employs full-time drivers in an in-house and programmed delivery system. All this is done in one-tenth the space used by conventional terminals, and until this system is adopted, gates will continue to cause congestion, and scapegoats will continue to be implicated.