We’ve already made reference to Secretary Norman Mineta’s Keynote Address at the International Association of Ports and Harbors earlier this month, but what seems to go right over everyone’s head is the concern Secretary Mineta has shown for the lack of efficiency in U.S. ports. Being well aware of the importance of a cooperative stand in order to deal with the issues that challenge international maritime commerce, Secretary Mineta said, “But all the maritime deals in the world will accomplish nothing unless we confront the twin challenges of capacity and congestion. It is imperative that transportation systems support and encourage trade, not serve as a bottleneck to it … today, efficiency is a prerequisite to survival.” Efficiency is the keystone, then.

A few years ago, prompted by the rapidly growing numbers of incoming and outgoing containers, Secretary Mineta advised authorities that, although only 60 of the 361 terminals in the U.S. are now handling intermodal containers, in the coming years another 200 terminals will be required to do so. Did this advisory register with anyone in the port communities? Everyone yawned. No sweat.

Recent surveys and reports issued by economists and consultants have provided a false sense of security to those who are responsible for the transit of cargo in and out of this country. The 2005 peak-shipping season has brought little congestion, they say, and the ports are in good condition. The fact that the less-than-expected amount of congestion came about because of a diversion of a large number of container ships seems to matter little to those observers, and this perceived respite allows authorities to keep their collective heads in the sand for a little while longer. Outsiders, however, are now telling us that the time has come to get down to business. It’s time to sweat a little because growth has spawned problems that will no longer be solved with stop-gap measures.

Maersk’s President and CEO, Russell Bruner, in his October 6th address to the Foreign Commerce Club, once again highlighted the supply chain’s weak points. The shortage of drivers is the most serious of the five critical issues facing the industry, he said, and it’s the one that could be fixed most easily and most quickly. “The bottom line is that we have to pay truckers more”, he reasoned. But it just so happens that this is the issue that is being shunted aside by the port authorities. To justify their utter contempt for the plight of truckers, a 2004 study was unearthed which stated that port congestion was the reason truckers wouldn’t be paid more, thus making it seem as though the truckers were responsible for the mess. [How’s that for a spin!]

Three of the other four critical issues identified by Mr. Bruner also concern supply chain shortcomings, namely; the imbalance between inbound and outbound container traffic, port infrastructure, and road and rail infrastructure. But none of this comes as a surprise to anyone, and Mr. Bruner must be exasperated because of the failure on the part of port officials to act responsibly in these matters. Even Mr. Ma Zehua, Executive VP of COSCO, warned the American port industry that congestion had to be solved., or else. He also called for the ports “to increase investment in infrastructure, to optimize your management systems, and especially to improve the efficiency in operations between the ports and the inland transportation facilities.” [Efficiency … again.]