Finding a way to solve the congestion problems plaguing US ports, particularly on the West Coast, is on the agenda at most shipping conferences these days, but port infrastructure itself may not be the biggest hurdle to importing and exporting goods, speakers at the 47th Georgia Foreign Trade Conference said.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said that US ports need better gate fluidity, a modernization programme for equipment such as ship-to-shore and yard cranes and a way to embrace and better implement technology.
“We have to find a way to embrace and implement better technology, to make sure we can handle these goods, that we can move them more efficiently, that we can move them more accurately and move them safely,” Foltz said.
Foltz also noted the need increased container storage capacity in the US. “There’s not much more coastal land that’s available [in the United States], and most people don’t want to develop what is left for industrial use,” he said.
Gate fluidity – or the lack thereof at many ports – is a key challenge for the industry, said Walter Kemmsies, chief economist at international engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol. “The problem is with gateways, not ports,” he said. “Ports are all in place, but getting goods free to move can be kind of like a whack-a-mole game: you have a congestion point, you whack it, and something else becomes a problem.”
As the size of ships has grown and most major shipping lines have entered into alliances with each other, particularly on the east-west trades, Kemmsies says that world trade is now moving more goods on fewer boats to fewer ports. “We’ve figured out how to use very big ships, and how to operate the terminals [to accommodate those ships], but once the goods go out the gate, this is something that really needs to be solved,” he said.
Foltz said much the same thing: “If we as a country are going to continue to grow, we have to improve our connectivity between those ships and the customers. We need to better focus our efforts to make sure those gateways are fixed.
Expected growth in both global trade and in population in the US will only intensify poor connectivity, said Foltz. “The United States is projected to see increasing demand, with a 25% population growth over next 30 years,” Foltz said. “This will put further strain on facilities in the US, which will see increased volumes coming through our ports.”
Connectivity is an issue which cannot be resolved by shipping lines or ports alone, Foltz says, calling on the US government to increase its efforts to bring US ports up to speed. Statistics supplied by the Georgia Ports Authority show that the US spends the least among developed economies on infrastructure investment, at just 2% of gross domestic product, compared to 5% of GDP in the European Union and 9% of GDP in China.
“They are growing their port capacity at warp-speed compared to ours,” Foltz told conference attendees. “We’ve got to do a better job at growing our port capacity simply so we can trade with our trading partners around the world.”
By Gregory Glass
Managing Editor | Hong Kong