The Virginia Port Authority on Thursday outlined a series of recent steps, as well as future ones, to address poor terminal productivity that has caused congestion for motor carriers and cargo delays for shippers during the past year.
Officials said they are implementing a series of measures such as extending gate hours and adding cargo handling equipment to improve cargo velocity in the short-term, while a Motor Carrier Task Force formed last month looks at longer-term, permanent solutions.
The immediate focus is on Norfolk International Terminals, a 693-acre facility with two truck-cargo transfer zones and a large on-dock, intermodal rail yard.
“We are taking concrete steps to address some immediate concerns -- motor carrier-related issues are a priority -- and building this foundation for the future. Over the long-term, these moves will help us better align our volumes with revenues and improve the overall flow of cargo across our terminals,” VPA Executive Director John F. Reinhart said in a statement.
Reinhart, who previously helmed Norfolk-based ocean carrier Maersk Line Ltd., took leadership of the port Feb. 10.
Last year, the Port of Virginia achieved a record container volume of 2.22 million TEUs, but a mix of inadequate technology and equipment and labor shortages resulted in inefficient cargo handling that forced truckers to wait as much as two-to-four hours to pick up a load, according to port and industry officials. The delays were compounded by an unusually harsh winter in which the Hampton Roads area was hit by at least three large snowfalls and other ice events that slowed, or forced the suspension of, operations. Bad weather throughout the Northeast, as well as operational challenges at the Port of New York/New Jersey, led to a minor amount of cargo diversion and also wreaked havoc with vessel sailing schedules. To get vessels back on schedule, containers were quickly offloaded without being organized in stacks for road or rail departure or by destination. Truckers often experienced delays when picking up a box because longshoremen had to move four or five other boxes to reach ones on the bottom.
Meanwhile, the port's intermodal volume grew 11.7 percent in 2013 to 430,894 containers, with rail cargo now representing 34 percent of the port's total container traffic, the highest in the port's history. Port officials opted to dedicate more cargo-handling equipment to keep rail operations fluid, which limited available lift equipment in the truck zone.
The cascading events tested the port's operating limits, with the drayage sector, which is responsible for shuttling loads and empty containers in and out of the port, feeling the brunt of the impact, VPA spokesman Joe Harris said.
Several ports around the country are facing similar disruptions.
Virginia port officials touted the boom in business, but the record volumes also required record expenses, much of which was due to urgent, unplanned spending for more dock workers, fuel, and maintenance and repairs.
Last year, the Port of Virginia had an operating loss of $17.5 million, up from $15.2 million in 2012 and a loss of $17.2 million in 2011.
The new procedures will make the port more efficient "and when you're more efficient, it addresses some of those costs," Harris said.
The port's financial performance was one of the main issues that led to the appointment of a new board of commissioners three years ago, a statewide effort in 2013 to reorganize the port's governing structure and operations, and the hiring of a new executive director.
One maritime executive, who didn't want to be identified because of ties to the port, said some of the current problems could be because port managers were distracted by the political turmoil and internal transformation during the past few years, including an effort to privatize the port.
Harris and local maritime industry officials said actions taken have had a positive effect and that turn times for drivers have slowly improved. Shuttle drivers need to make three or four round-trips per day to cover their operating expenses and make a decent living, but the delays have often limited daily trips to one or two.
"There is definitely progress being made," Arthur Moye, executive vice president of the Virginia Maritime Association, said. "This is not a problem that occurred overnight. It's not going to be resolved overnight. But the parties are pulling out all the stops to make some immediate improvements and ones for the long run."
In February, the port's operating arm, Virginia International Terminals, opened express lanes at the truck transfer lots for one-way export and empty box returns so truckers don't have to cycle through the entire terminal with other trucks that have pick-ups and deliveries. The so-called "pop-and-go" lanes handle 10-to-15 percent of the truck volume and the average transaction time is 30 minutes. The state company also expanded gate hours to 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.
The VPA said it will implement on May 1 a limited appointment system to spread the flow of trucks into NIT throughout the day and reduce the "rush hour" effect. A fixed number of reservations will be available each hour. Harris said an appointment system has been under consideration for some time, but the recent challenges made clear the need to implement it as soon as possible. A more robust appointment system that connects with the port's new Navis 4 terminal operating system will be phased in following full implementation of N4 in July and at some point, there will be a port-wide appoint system that includes the other main container facility, APM Terminals, he said.
"You can't have 1,200 trucks showing up at 8 a.m. in the morning. It just doesn't work. So, the idea is to meter the flow through the terminal," Harris said.
N4 is the latest version of Navis' software for automating all terminal functions, such as assigning which boxes for cranes to lift in what order, and replaces the port's legacy system. It will allow for better operational visibility of events, equipment utilization in the yard, gate efficiency, event monitoring and inventory management, the VPA said.
The system is used in more than 90 terminals around the world, according to Navis.
VIT this week also began testing the use of optical character recognition devices at the gates to automatically identify the container, chassis and license plate numbers of trucks and speed up processing. The VPA said the technology, which is used in other ports, should cut processing time in half, which in turn will reduce lines and the emissions that result from idling.
Harris acknowledged that the port doesn't have good data on turn times because it has never had the technology to monitor trucks from the time of arrival, through the empty yard, the transfer zone and back out. Turn times can vary by day depending on vessel schedules, the amount of containers in the yard, weather and other factors, but most observers say information about delays is mostly anecdotal and piecemeal.
A group of truckers in Southern California is using GPS technology on its trucks to track every movement through terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and develop a baseline on where service breakdowns are occurring and spur the terminals to make changes.
VIT is leasing 32 yard tractors to move containers within NIT's central rail yard. The yard hostlers are scheduled to be delivered by May 26 and will be deployed as soon as it's practical to optimize rail loading and unloading. The utility rigs will free up some of the straddle carriers to work the stacks served by motor carriers, the VPA said.
In addition, significant changes are being made to the rail yard's layout and to the programming technology to reflect new processes. As the N4 system is implemented, it will use GPS to locate and track containers, according to the port authority.
Additional measures taken since mid-February to improve terminal operations include:
- New supervisory staffing at all operating areas: gate, transfer zone and rail operations
- More labor being ordered to work the expanded operating hours for straddle carrier operations and to train straddle carrier drivers
- Mothballed straddle carriers and other equipment are being refurbished and tuned-up to quickly add capacity rather than waiting to buy new equipment
- Straddle carriers and other equipment are being maintained more frequently to reduce downtime
- Chassis are being re-positioned daily, including weekends, to balance chassis on yards and in the terminals
- Ocean carriers are collaborating to add more chassis to the port's pool
- Empty yard hours have been extended to match terminal hours on weekends.
The Motor Carrier Task Force consists of a 10-member steering committee and five working groups focused on safely reducing turn times within the terminal cutting wait times at the gates, chassis availability, and empty yards and refrigerated containers. The task force, which is working under specific deadlines, includes representatives from the motor carrier industry, service providers, the dockworker's union, ocean carriers, shippers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The committee will breakdown and review every segment of a truck movement before arrival, within the facility and at exit.
"Everything we’re doing is with an eye toward the future, but we have to make things better now as well," Harris said.