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West coast port closures example of the worst case scenario

25 Feb 2015 | Posted by | 0 Comments | , ,

The eight-month labor dispute that left fully loaded container ships anchored off the west coast for weeks caused an “epicback-up that underscored just how critical the smooth movement of freight is to the nation’s economy.

An apparent settlement between port operators and unions representing 20,000 dockworkers has begun to untie the knot, but effects are likely to be felt for some time.

The slowdown has had a profound impact on agriculture, retail, technology, and myriad of other industries whose products ship through the 29 ports on the west coast. The trans-Pacific maritime trade came to a virtual halt during that period.

“Factories are shutting down due to non-delivery of component parts; citrus growers, nut exporters and beef exporters are getting slaughtered on the export side; and truckers are wasting endless hours as they await permission to retrieve cargo,” reported The Hill.

The shutdowns also had a sizable impact on the rail, air and trucking operations that distribute freight from ports to the rest of us, who now are straining under the sudden onslaught of goods. At full productivity, thousands of trucks a day carry off 40 percent of the country’s container cargo, starting the “first-mile” of transporting goods through an extensive highway and rail network.

The slowdown raised the profile of first-mile connections, but poor “last-mile” connections can have similar impacts: It currently takes nearly as long for freight to travel across the city of Chicago as it does to reach Chicago from Los Angeles. Much of that delay has to do with the conflicts between commuter traffic and freight movement. It lacks the headline-grabbing impact of a photo of dozens of container ships anchored in the background of an L.A. beach scene, but it’s an ongoing and damaging situation.

Today, we have no national comprehensive freight policy to pick the smartest investments — regardless of mode — to best move goods from Point A to Point B. As we stumble closer to MAP-21’s expiration date in May, we have an opportunity to change the way we depend on just a few means of transport.

Lawmakers need to ensure the capacity for long-haul routes, especially where they collide with population centers. Some metro regions are working to address this by giving residents other travel options to clear space for freight, but they need more federal resources to do the job. We need to direct both policies and resources toward addressing the costly and time-consuming bottlenecks in connecting the ships to the ports and the ports to the rail and truck yards. This can be achieved by targeting funding through competitive grant programs that ensure all appropriate modes are eligible as well as projects that relieve these bottlenecks and improve both first- and last-mile connections.

MAP-21’s reauthorization should also incentivize and support regional planning for freight movement, to ensure that these bottlenecks no longer threaten our economy.