Marine gateways on the west coast of North America are scrambling to ramp up terminal capacity and access as volumes rise sharply and ultra large container vessels (ULCVs) and carrier alliances bring spikes in container throughput.
At the outset of 2016, west coast port executives and pundits were speculating about the likely extent of shipping lost to ports on the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the completion of the Panama Canal expansion. Instead, volumes kept climbing last year and are scaling new heights in 2017. Throughput records tumbled in May from Los Angeles and Long Beach to the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) of Seattle and Tacoma.
A throughput of 796,216 TEUs made for the busiest May in the history of the Port of Los Angeles, thanks to a 3.4% rise in containers. This brought the port’s tally to 8.5% growth for the first five months of this year.
This is some way above the 5.6% growth that the port has projected in its budget for fiscal 2017/18, which was approved on June 1. Meanwhile, the higher volume in May caused truckers to wait on average two minutes longer at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to one report, which attributed the delays chiefly to the new ship alliances.
To accommodate projected growth, two container terminals at Los Angeles are currently undergoing expansion work, and two more improvement projects for container facilities are under environmental review at this point. On the land side, the port is working to improve road access.
Another plank in the port’s strategy to reduce congestion is a pilot project in partnership with GE Transportation to establish an information portal – allegedly the first of its kind – that aims to give all cargo owners and supply chain operators secure, channelled access to cargo data, bringing them greater planning capability.
The Port of Long Beach clocked up a 9.2% rise in TEUs in June, which brought its growth in the second quarter of the year to 8.3%. The port spends over half of its annual budget on facilities improvement and environmental projects and has a laundry list of upgrades in progress or in planning. Arguably most prominent among these is the US$1.3 billion Middle Harbor Redevelopment Project, which amalgamates two terminals into one container facility with on-dock rail capacity.
One of the most recent additions to the project list is the proposed redevelopment of an on-dock rail yard to allow the assembly of longer trains to move twice the amount of containers at half the pollution levels.
The Port of Oakland, which enjoyed a 5.1% rise in box throughput in June, is envisaging investments of altogether US$600 million for expansion projects, through a mix of public funding, private investment and port funds. A large chunk of this – US$244 million – is for separation of rail tracks from major port roads, and US$90 million goes into a privately built reefer warehouse with a footprint of 283,000 sq ft. Scheduled to open next summer, it aims to boost exports of chilled beef and pork through Oakland. TraPac, the port’s second-largest terminal, is undergoing a US$50 million expansion. At the beginning of the year the port completed the construction of a railyard, which cost about US$100 million.
In addition, the port is in the process of raising the height of four ship-to-shore cranes, and two more are due to follow.
The NWSA approved a US$52 million purchase of four container cranes for its Husky terminal in June, on top of four others ordered earlier. With a reach of 24 containers and a lift height of 165 feet above the pier deck, they are designed to handle ULCVs.
The NWSA also gave the green light for an additional US$2.9 million in improvements at Terminal 18, one of its facilities that can handle 18,000 TEU vessels. Two more facilities are gearing up to take ULCVs. The port is reconfiguring its Pier 4 to take 18,000 TEU ships, and plans for Terminal 5 call for a revamp to accommodate two 18,000 TEU vessels.
At this point, there is no timeline for the development of Terminal 5. Crane capacity and the construction schedule depend on the requirements of its future tenants, said NWSA communications director Tara Mattina.
The port complex registered an 18% increase in international container volume in May.
North of the border, the Port of Vancouver is planning to expand one of its two container terminals in the inner harbour to boost the facility’s capacity by two-thirds. Vancouver ended 2016 with a 3.3% rise in container volume.
The Port of Prince Rupert, closest to Asia among North American West Coast ports, brought in three gantry cranes with a horizontal reach of 25 containers in May to boost its capability to handle ULCVs. Meanwhile, work has been progressing on the expansion of the port’s Fairview container terminal from currently 850,000 to 1.35 million TEUs. This is scheduled for completion in the third quarter of this year.
In a flanking move the port announced in March an agreement for the development of a transloading facility for pulses and cereals and other agricultural crops from hopper cars to ocean containers for export. The 10-acre facility will include a rail loop corridor for over 100 rail cars, a grain dumper pit and a state-of-the-art conveyance system, according to the port authority.
By Ian Putzger
Correspondent | Toronto