Lack of Information Hindering U.S. West Coast Ports

Long Beach
Port of Long Beach

By MarEx 2016-11-12 18:29:28

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report into west coast ports highlighting that operations are strained due to increasing container ship sizes and the formation of shipping alliances and states that more information is needed by government officials to help manage the impacts.

In 2015, West Coast ports handled almost 35 percent of the total international waterborne trade that moved through domestic ports. The majority of ocean-borne cargo moves through a relatively small number of ports. These ports: Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern
California; Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area; and Seattle and Tacoma in the Northwest handled 88 percent of total West Coast port volumes in 2015.

All of these ports have projected increasing volumes. For example, the regional government for Southern California has forecast that the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports will handle approximately 40 million TEUs by 2035, more than two times the cargo handled today. 

The report West Coast Ports: Better Supply Chain Information Could Improve DOT's Freight Efforts states that some terminals lack big enough cranes or other infrastructure needed to handle larger vessels, although all major ports have planned or completed port-related infrastructure projects and implemented operational changes. For example, in Long Beach, California, the Gerald Desmond Bridge is being heightened to enable larger vessels to pass underneath. 

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) freight-related activities are increasingly multi-modal and inclusive of ports, but gaps exist in the information available to DOT and state and local governments about important aspects of supply chains. For example, a 2015 DOT report notes that movements of international trade between ports and domestic origin for exports and domestic destinations for imports are not measured. 

Most state and local government officials said that having information on ports' performance and the end-to-end process of producing and distributing a product or commodity from raw materials to the final customer would be helpful to target efforts to address constraints at ports.

A few current DOT initiatives may help address some information gaps, but they are in the early stages. DOT has also articulated the need for supply chain information in its draft National Freight Strategic Plan. 

Based on a 2014 GAO recommendation, DOT is in the early stages of developing a written freight data strategy to improve the availability of national data on freight trends. Broadening its freight data strategy to include supply chain information could help DOT to think more strategically about the specific supply chain information needed to support its freight efforts and advance national freight policy goals.

GAO conducted case studies of the three major port regions on the West Coast; interviewed key stakeholders such as port authorities and state and local transportation agencies for each region and 21 industry representatives.

GAO recommends that, in developing a freight data strategy, DOT should identify: what supply chain information is needed, potential sources of that information, data gaps, and how it intends to use this information to inform freight efforts. DOT concurred with the recommendation.

The report is available here.