America's Ports are Falling Behind

Speaking at the Council of Logistics Management, Theodore Prince, senior vice president of Optimization Alternatives Limited, noted that structural issues extend beyond the ports that add to the threat that U.S. ports will become quickly outdated. John Vickerman, principal of TranSystems Corp., agreed, pointing out that ports and their associated intermodal systems can no longer build their way out of capacity problems.

"The U.S. Intermodal freight transportation system is now being operated in many areas near the limits of economically sustainable capacity," said Vickerman. "We lack a systematic program for freight transportation planning and development that focuses our critical, scarce resources on key system problem points," he continued. Citing a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Vickerman said 75% of the 16 ports studied will have significant capacity problems by 2010.

A national freight policy is needed, according to the study. "No longer can freight transportation programs of "national significance" be relegated solely to local authority or focused at the Municipal Planning Organization (MPO) level. We must take a systematic view of the intermodal freight system," Vickerman noted.

Prince called for "real research" that would analyze local and national benefits of proposed infrastructure improvements. The true benefits of those improvements may lie elsewhere, Prince continued. "Ports have one product, lifts per hour," he explained. They are constrained by space and facilities that are nearly obsolete the moment they are built. In addition, labor, technology, and productivity contribute to the port's attractiveness to shippers. Initiatives like the intermodal connector in the Alameda Corridor suffered from a lack of common sense. They forgot about trucks, said Prince. Bigger ships mean more containers, but truck lanes were cut from the project and actually increased congestion and decreased competition. Bottlenecks were merely relocated, not eliminated.

A better process is needed for planning and funding port infrastructure projects or traffic growth is going to overwhelm the system, Prince concluded.

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