Port Container Volumes Return to Normal After West Coast Congestion Problems

It could be called a tale of two ports.

In May, the Port of Long Beach saw its container volumes jump 4.8 percent over the same month last year while the Port of Los Angeles said its container volumes barely budged, rising only 0.8 percent in May over the previous year.

The Port of Long Beach noted that May’s volume of 635,250 20-foot cargo containers was the facility’s busiest month since October 2007 and the busiest May since 2006.

Port officials believe a better retail market is one of the reasons for increased imports. Also, a months-long West Coast port congestion problem that started last September and didn’t end until February had many companies holding back on some imports or choosing to ship them by air.

For the first five months of this year, cargo volume at the Port of Long Beach was a little more subdued, rising 1.1 percent over 2014.

Meanwhile, the Port of Los Angeles said in May it handled 694,791 cargo containers, a slight improvement over last year. But for the first five months of this year, cargo volumes were down 4 percent.

The two Southern California ports make up the largest port complex in the United States, handling about 40 percent of all the cargo-container traffic in the United States.

A chassis shortage and work slowdowns at the two ports quickly hampered import volumes during the critical holiday shipping season last year and at the beginning of this year. At one time there were 28 cargo containers stacked up beyond the breakwater waiting for berths to unload their cargo sitting while negotiations over a new five-year labor contract were ongoing between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, whose terminal operators and shipping lines employ the longshore workers.

Nationwide, the major ports across the country experienced robust activity in May, with import cargo-container volumes estimated to be up 5 percent. In April, imports rose 6.1 percent over the previous year, according to the monthly “Global Port Tracker” report, prepared by Hackett Associates for the National Retail Federation.

“Despite some lingering labor issues, the volume of cargo and the rate of growth have both largely settled down,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “There are still congestion issues to be dealt with, but we’re hoping to see reasonably normal back-to-school and holiday seasons this year now that the tensions of contract negotiations are behind us.”

During the first half of 2015, import container volumes at the major ports will be up 5.4 percent over the same period last year, to 8.8 million containers.