Three Strikes, Yer Out!

One or two developments affecting the intermodal supply chain have been overlooked by authorities at recent West Coast conferences. Or maybe they’re just preoccupied with what’s imminent, and don’t have the time to think about anything else. They should make the time, though, because concurrent events are about to take center-stage.

• Last week Teamster organizers from across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico demonstrated at the Port of Miami in support of exploited and underpaid drivers at the port. The hour-long rally was led by Teamsters National Organizing Director, Jeff Farmer, and Teamsters International VP and Port Division Director, Chuck Mack. As low men on the totem pole, drivers are mutually supportive and serve as the foundation of the transportation system.

• A new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) survey indicates that drivers of interstate trucks spend more time behind the wheel under a Federal Hours of Service rule that went into effect in 2004. This new rule extends the mandatory rest period by two hours, but allows drivers to spend an extra hour on the road every day. A quarter of the drivers polled said they drive more than the daily limit, and although the drivers stated that the new rule allows them an increased amount of sleep time, 15% admitted dozing at the wheel at least once a month, compared to 13% when the old work rule was in effect. “Studies show that fatigue is a significant factor in truck crashes,” said Anne McCartt, the Institute’s VP of Research. “The new rule was supposed to improve safety, but our survey shows the opposite.”
[Strike one.]

• In apparent consideration for those who must contend with traffic tie-ups in and around the LA/Long Beach port complex, a number of costly proposals, though still on the drawing board, have been revealed to the public. Expanding the I-710 Freeway, replacing the George Desmond Bridge, construction of inland container yards and container shuttles serving these inland sites, are supposed to be steps which will benefit the forsaken drivers. But that’s all nonsense. It’s just a smoke screen to retain drivers for as long as possible. The fine print says that these projects won’t see the light of day for another ten years. The “modest” estimate of $ 4 billion is also nonsense. For example, the San Francisco Bay Bridge project was begun seven years ago, at an estimated (and modest) price of $ 1.3 billion, but the unfinished bridge has turned out to be one of California’s most expensive construction projects, and the latest cost revision is up to $ 5.1 billion. Senator Tom McClintock, VP of the Senate Transportation Committee said, “It’s the biggest fiasco in California transportation history”. And there’s no doubt at all that it will remain the “biggest fiasco”, because the lack of time and the lack of funding ($ 16 billion to $ 20 billion, maybe?) will keep the Southern California projects right where they belong … in the realm of fantasy.
[Strike two.]

• The PierPass program, however, was not designed for the benefit of those who contend with port and highway traffic problems. The math is unconvincing and there’s also something amiss with the logic behind the program. The primitive operational procedures within port terminals are the cause of all the breakdowns and shortcomings in the intermodal distribution chain, but the cost of this proposed remedial measure is shifted to those who have nothing to do with terminal operations. Cargo owners and trucking operations are now required to shoulder the cost of extended gate operations. For the time being, at least, a $ 20 fee will be assessed for every container moved to or from the harbor during the daytime shift, but to reflect the anticipated cost of operating these off-hour gates, this $ 20 fee will be increased to $ 40, after some kind of an implementation period. After stating that only 7% of the harbor traffic is normally being handled in the off-peak hours, it was determined that 4 million TEUs of an annual 13 million TEUs would have to be assessed day-use fines (or fees, whatever) when the system is finally up and running, in order to generate the estimated cost of $ 160 million (?) per year to operate these extended gates. Somehow or other this math comes down to the $ 40 fee that will be imposed upon the cargo owner, or trucker, or whoever it is that gets stuck with the bill. Clear as mud. What is clear, however, is that if only 4 million TEUs will be allowed to move during the daytime shift, then the hauling of the remaining several million TEUs will be required during the off-peak hours. If 7% of 13 million TEUs, (about 910,000 TEUs), are presently being handled in off-peak hours, does it sound reasonable, practical, logical or even likely, that the already dissatisfied drivers will conform to the demands of the PierPass system and switch to off-peak hours to haul an indeterminate number of TEUs? Does anyone have any idea how many millions of trips this entails? Transportation authorities have warned that such callous disregard has led to a shortage of drivers in the trucking industry and that a “national crisis” is looming. Five years ago Michael Belzer was dismayed by the low wages, long hours, piece work and unsafe working conditions. He said, “If the problem is not resolved soon, you won’t have to worry about gridlock because there won’t be any trucks on the road.” Wasn’t anyone listening?
[Strike three.]

• There are two sides to every coin. Government officials in the U.S. and Canada are pushing for more comprehensive background checks on port workers. The 3,500 Canadian members of the ILWU are objecting to federally-mandated screening, however, and warned that, because dockworkers will refuse to submit to these background checks, they will more than likely be barred by Transport Canada from working in restricted areas, and operations in the Port of Vancouver would be seriously curtailed. Union president Tom DuFresne in a letter to Transport Minister Jean Lapierre referred to the screening as an abuse of confidentiality and privacy, and President Frank Pasacreta of the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association, supporting the ILWU’s stand, stated that the screening methods to be employed are too aggressive. The outcome of this confrontation is predictable. The unions will stick to their guns and gain the support of the ILWU in the U.S., and Transport Canada will back off rather than compound the problems that exist in the intermodal supply chain throughout the continent. The trickle-down effect of the union’s non-compliance will call into question the screening programs initiated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and will present yet another problem for U.S. terminal operations. [Something’s gotta give.]