The Big ‘IF’

“Ports are the vehicle of economic growth,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in Houston last week at the 25th International Association of Ports and Harbors World Ports Conference. That statement pretty much paraphrases what Mr. Wilson Lacy, the Port of Oakland’s Maritime Director, had said a few months ago when he referred to container terminals as the “gold mines of today”.

Secretary Gutierrez went on to say that, “Ports are our gateway to the global marketplace, but they can only generate economic activity and support jobs if they are well-run, efficient and easy to navigate”. Now that’s a big ‘if’.

‘Well-run’? Today we’re reading about protests, demonstrations, walkouts, strikes, and even accidental deaths, in port operations around the country. By any standards, and by no stretch of the imagination, do those events reflect favorably on port management.

‘Efficient’? Time and time again we’ve criticized the increasing container fees, and fines, being imposed as a result of inefficient U.S. terminal and trucking operations. In spite of Fran Inman’s warning about an eventual ‘tipping point’, state officials, port authorities and even economists are repeatedly clamoring for more and more add-on container fees. It’s a game of catch-up. As operations become more and more troublesome and inefficient, management knows of no other alternative but to throw money at unanticipated problems. Not their own money, of course, but taxpayer/consumer money. There is an alternative to this rush to eventual gridlock … the inevitable avenue we’ve been offering …but the signpost escapes notice when blinders are being worn.

‘Easy to navigate’? In Article 4 of this Volume we touched briefly upon some of the difficulties being encountered when maneuvering, and navigating, those mammoth container ships that have mesmerized the ‘bigger-is-better’ set. Here’s a sampling of ‘easy’ navigation:

• It takes 15 to 20 minutes to bring one of these vessels to a standstill, which adds almost a half hour to every maneuver, and increases fuel consumption as well.
• These very large ships can only be brought into port during daylight and when the wind falls below 10 knots.
• They require longer berths than those available in most ports, and require the use of taller, bigger and more expensive cranes than those found in most ports.
• Because these larger vessels require upgrading within the port and outlying infrastructure, an unfair burden must be shouldered by consumers and taxpayers.

Neil Davidson, of Drewry Shipping Consultants, Ltd., also addressed the attendees at the conference and stated that by the year 2011, there will be a 672-million TEU capacity demand. “The challenge we all face,” he said, “is to avoid congestion and ensure that new capacity is put in place to meet the demand”.

‘New capacity… to meet the demand’? Mr. Davidson may as well be talking to the wall.