Congestion Slowly Easing at U.S. West Coast Ports

Container ships sit in berths at the Port of Los Angeles, California October 15, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Container ships sit in berths at the Port of Los Angeles, California October 15, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES, April 1 (Reuters) – Cargo congestion at the two busiest U.S. container ports has eased considerably in the six weeks since West Coast dockworkers and shippers reached a tentative labor deal, but port officials said it would take several more weeks for freight traffic to return to normal.

The most obvious sign of improved cargo flow through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is a sharp decline in the number of inbound freighters kept waiting at anchor for dock space to open, Los Angeles port spokesman Paul Sanfield said on Wednesday.

Nine vessels stood idle outside the twin ports on Tuesday and Wednesday, down from the 31 stacked up at anchor during the height of the cargo crisis that reached the point of near gridlock in February, Sanfield said.

He said berths were normally available as soon as freighters arrived at the two ports, which together handle 43 percent of all containerized goods entering the United States.

Sanfield said the average time it took cargo ships to get in and out of the terminals declined to 7.6 days last week from 8.4 days in early March. Turnaround times usually average four to five days, he said.

Cargo loads were reported to have faced lag times of two weeks or more during months of labor negotiations at all 29 U.S. West Coast ports between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and major shipping lines and terminal operators.

Port slowdowns, blamed by each side on the other as pressure tactics during the talks, snarled trans-Pacific maritime trade and reverberated throughout the U.S. economy, extending to agriculture, manufacturing, retail and transportation.

A settlement was reached on Feb. 20 with the help of a federal mediator and intervention by U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

The terminals and their union workforce have since made steady progress in clearing the cargo backlog, although it will likely take several more weeks for the ports to regain their ordinary rhythm, Sanfield said.

He said operational issues that hampered cargo traffic through last year must still be addressed, including the growing number of supersized freighters now calling on the ports.

But damage to West Coast port business had already been done, he said, as some customers began to reroute shipments. A Journal of Commerce industry poll of 138 shippers published days after the labor settlement found 65 planned to direct less cargo through the West Coast this year and next. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney)

© 2015 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.