Connecting the dots …

Last year’s peak season was an unforgettable nightmare on the West Coast. This year’s peak season, on the other hand, was hardly noticeable. It was smooth sailing from start to finish, officials boasted. Along with a fairly modest increase in port hirings, the PierPASS initiative is all that was necessary, and congestion is now a thing of the past, they figure. Well, that may be true if no further growth is seen at the LA-Long Beach complex, but what about the 24% increases we’re hearing about in Asia? Won’t any of it be serviced by the Southern California ports? Maybe and maybe not. It depends upon the decisions made by state government agencies, the port authorities and the shipping lines. As far as the state and port authorities are concerned, “Bring ‘em on! $ 50 billion oughtta do it”, they’re saying. They still haven’t connected the dots. For those in the maritime industry whose jobs are on the line every day, however, the status quo at LA-Long Beach just won’t cut it.

In a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, Captain Gordon Houston, president and chief executive at Canada’s Port of Vancouver advised his listeners that container traffic will triple during the next 15 years and the port will have to invest to compete with U.S. ports. He reminded the Board that U.S. ports on the West Coast will be investing millions in order to accommodate the increased flow, with the understanding that Asia Pacific cargo will ultimately flow to those gateways that provide the most competitive and reliable service. Captain Houston was preparing for the future.

For Karen Oldfield, chief executive officer of the Halifax Port Authority, the future is now. Chinese goods have started arriving in North America by way of the Suez Canal, a prospect she could hardly have envisaged earlier this year when Maersk pulled up stakes. The unexpected, but hoped for, increase in container traffic is a result of the authority’s efforts to promote the Suez Canal as an alternative route for Asian trade. West Coast congestion and the fact that the Panama canal is already at 94% capacity signaled the authority to hire Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd. to study the feasibility (read, “inevitability”) of the Suez canal route. “Both the Suez Canal and the East Coast of North America need to position themselves for more problems on the West Coast and Panama Canal routes down the line,” said Drewry’s Mark Page. “The congestion problem has gone away in 2005, but I don’t think there’s any question it will come back again.” The beneficiaries, of course, will be those ports whose officials have taken note of Asian growth and LA/Long Beach laxity.

A bright future is also dawning for other U.S. ports. Normally quiet Port Everglades, for example, handled a 10% increase of containerized cargo this year and expects another 10% increase in 2006 as shipping lines carrying Asian freight to the U.S. look for alternatives to California’s congested seaports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. Double-digit growth is expected in the larger ports as well. Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast, and NY/NJ, Virginia, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville on the East Coast are all anticipating unprecedented growth because of a lack of foresight in Southern California. The PierPASS band aid barely did the trick this year and shippers know it. The forceful diverting of vessels during 2004’s crunch led to a systematic rerouting in 2005, and these new routes will be plied in 2006, because as Captain Houston put it, “Asia Pacific cargo will ultimately flow to those gateways that provide the most competitive and reliable service.”