MARCH 19, 2015 Truckers feel spike in NY-NJ port congestion

New York-New Jersey port truckers are growing frustrated with delays accompanying a late-winter cargo spike that        container terminals are struggling to handle. Diversion of West Coast traffic, carrier deployments of large “extra loader” ships to handle Asian cargo, and the arrival of imports booked before last month’s Lunar New Year holiday have piled        cargo atop already-strong volumes at the East Coast’s busiest port.


Current delays don’t approach those of  last winter, when a series of blizzards crippled port operations for two months.    The Maritime Association of the Port of New York reports no backup of anchored ships such as those that Southern         California ports saw a few weeks ago. During the last two weeks, however, at least one or two New York-New Jersey        terminals a day have been clogged by heavy volumes that have slowed truck turn times.


Most expect this flare-up of rolling congestion to ease within  a couple of weeks, when West Coast diversions end and    import volume slackens after the pre-Lunar New Year surge is cleared. Longer term, plans are proceeding to launch a    portwide “gray” pool of interchangeable chassis and to hire additional longshoremen. Relief can’t come soon enough for truckers. Drayage drivers have been venting and posting videos of long queues on social media. Motor carriers say the   congestion is hitting them and their customers with higher costs.


Mike Baicher, president of West End Transportation, estimated that his customers have been assessed more than          $600,000 in demurrage bills at port terminals since the start of the year. Terminals have extended gate hours and taken other steps, such as requiring truckers to return empties to off-dock depots. The restrictions on returns of empties have eased pressure on jammed terminals, but have added to motor carrier problems.


Off-dock depots are smaller and have less staffing than container terminals, and have less flexibility to handle surges.   “A driver can easy wait two or three hours to drop an empty. Then he has to get back in line again to get into a terminal,” Baicher said.


Several motor carriers say their drivers are demanding higher pay to compensate for the long waits. “Drivers are in the driver’s seat,” Baicher said. “They’re almost like free agents. They can pick the company that’s paying the most.” Most   drivers in the port are owner-operators paid by the trip. Baicher said that in order to retain drivers, he pays them for          waiting time “from the minute they hit the line” when a terminal is severely congested.


Baicher said he’s refrained from levying congestion surcharges, because his customers already “are paying a ton of      money in demurrage” and because he can’t guarantee performance by a terminal or depot that he must use but doesn’t control.


Tom Heimgartner, president of Best Transportation, which uses employee drivers, said his company has raised their pay and passed along the costs through general rate increases. He  said  that  if  delays   don’t  ease soon,  he’ll  consider       imposing congestion surcharges, something his company never has done.


Truck turn times of as long as four to six hours have tightened trucking capacity in the port, Heimgartner said. He said he and his sales staff are fielding inquiries from cargo interests offering to pay more than the company’s quoted rate. “We have people calling us every day, begging us to handle freight for them. We’re turning them away, because we’ve got to   serve our existing customers,” he said.


Jason Hilsenbeck, president of LoadMatch and, said his company’s load-matching website had postings     for 48 New York-New Jersey drayage loads Wednesday and 39 by midday Thursday. He said that on a normal day, 10 to   15 loads are posted on LoadMatch from the port.


Heimgartner said the main reason truck capacity at the port is tight is that it’s increasingly difficult to hire and keep         drivers willing to tolerate the tedium of waiting in long queues at terminals. He said he  recently  paid  $10,000  to  post      a help-wanted sign for  two months on a billboard along the New Jersey Turnpike.


“The driver pool is shrinking,” he said. “No matter how much you pay them, nobody wants to sit in a truck for five or six    hours every day with no restroom or food or drink, and then drive for an hour, and go back and sit for another five hours.   It’s like being a caged animal.”

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