Piling It On

John Bowe. Remember him? Senior executive of Neptune Orient Lines and APL’s American boss? We’ve discussed his admonitions in previous commentaries. U.S. port and transportation authorities, however, still can’t seem to grasp the importance of those admonitions. At the third annual Innovations in Transportation symposium held at MIT at the beginning of this month he stressed the point, once again, that the transportation infrastructure here in the U.S. can’t keep up with the relentless growth in world trade. He warned that, unless the transportation system is overhauled, consumers and the U.S. economy will pay a steep price.

“The U.S. economy has been transformed by unprecedented growth in containerized imports”, he said. “Growth in transportation infrastructure hasn’t kept place. If we don’t fix this, supply chains will bog down, consumer prices will go up and the economy will suffer,” were his exact words.

Just last Friday Mr. Bowe issued the same appeal in his address to the Agricultural Ocean Transportation Coalition and in a follow-up interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. He recalled the congestion in the final months of 2004 when container ships sat for up to two weeks waiting to be offloaded in the LA/Long Beach complex, the nation’s busiest ports.

Acknowledging that improvements had been made since that critical period,.Mr. Bowe said that many changes still need to be made before the long-term outlook improves. With the aim of building congressional support for infrastructure improvements, APL has corresponded with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Elaine Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, and a coordinated effort from the public and private sectors to come up with a “holistic national freight policy” is being considered.

“We are just one company,” he said. “We are not a political machine, but we are trying to increase the awareness of the issue … Neither business or government, acting alone, can get the job done on a national scale,” Mr. Bowe said.

Much of what Mr. Bowe has been saying is entirely correct. Something indeed needs to be done about the primitive operations along the length of the U.S. supply chain, and he made it clear that he was not in favor of the heavy volumes directed to the LA/Long Beach complex. It’s a point we’ve been stressing in these commentaries, as did Doug Tilden a few years ago. The Port of Oakland “is betting the lines will hit a brick wall in Southern California”, was the way he put it.

Mr. Bowe, however, has been suggesting that the coordinated effort and expense be shouldered by the U.S. government and the nation’s consumers. Aye … there’s the rub. He represents a firm, and an industry, that can afford to purchase some of the largest vehicles ever produced by humankind … container ships. The average American, on the other hand, can barely afford the price of an automobile but is being pressured to foot the considerable cost of upgrading the nation’s supply chain infrastructure. That just ain’t fair. The beneficiaries of dredging, port expansion, and bridge, railway and highway reconstruction will be entities beyond our shores, not the U.S. consumer. That’s a con job. Want to know the truth? Ask yourself the question … Cui bono?