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Our Ports Have a Problem. They Can Solve It If We Let Them

New technology is helping automate and expand U.S. ports at a time of severe congestion. Governments shouldn’t let union interests thwart that.

Evergreen cargo terminal in Los Angeles, Calif.
A cargo terminal at the Port of Los Angeles, which is expanding rail capacity to reduce reliance on truck trips and cut down on pollution as well as congestion.
American ports, even in the face of trade tensions and a pandemic, have been booming. According to Logistics Management magazine, growth at the nation’s 30 largest ports was 1.7 percent in 2020, and since 2010, overall container traffic has increased 47 percent. This has caused highly publicized logjams at America’s biggest ports, leading to higher consumer prices. Efforts are underway to expand port capacity — but they are facing stiff union resistance.

Multiple trends have caused the traffic uptick. The U.S. has seen an increase in imports in recent decades, especially since the NAFTA trade agreement took effect in 1994. Trans-Atlantic cargo has grown substantially with the expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships. The canal widening, which allowed a third passageway, increased ship capacity by 34 percent, and has benefited East Coast and Gulf Coast ports that can now receive direct shipments of Asian goods more easily.

But one downside of the increased trade is congestion. Supply Chain Dive observes that since 2014, delays at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have crept up, and these delays hit epic proportions during the pandemic-fueled labor shortage. “In December, 26 percent of shipments had a dwell time (time in a waiting queue) greater than five days,” the publication reported.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that, at America’s 25 busiest container ports, time in queues for container vessels on average increased by nearly an hour just from 2018 to 2019. This helps explain the common recent sight of vessels backed bumper-to-bumper, often for hours or days at a time, at the Bay of San Francisco, Seattle’s Elliott Bay, and other ports near large cities. This has led to something of an arms race between competing ports to modernize, leveraging technology to decrease wait times, enhance loading speeds, and increase cargo throughput.

In Seattle, the Terminal 5 Modernization Project includes the acquisition of larger cranes that can lift approximately 100 tons and are expected to be activated next year. To the north, the Port of Prince Rupert is striving to become Canada’s second largest with several capacity expansions.

Houston’s port, one of the nation’s busiest, is widening its channel from 530 to 700 feet, accommodating larger ships, beginning this year. Loading docks have been expanded to increase container room, while new cranes of over 300 feet can grab cargo from the top of vessels.

The Port of Los Angeles is expanding rail capacity, which will reduce reliance on truck trips, so as to cut down on pollution as well as congestion. This addition of 31,000 linear feet of track will free up storage capacity. The Port of New York and New Jersey accommodated larger vessels by lifting the Bayonne Bridge.

An important part of all this is automation. In 2020, the Port of Houston acquired a program called SmartMap, which creates automated functions for routing containers, and another called SmartStack, which can update inventories rapidly. Automated cranes have been introduced at the Port of Los Angeles that can move cargo throughout an entire 24-hour period, greatly enhancing productivity.

At the Port of Prince Rupert, work is underway to utilize shore power. This means generating energy by way of electrical devices that spread power from port facilities to ships themselves, reducing use of polluting ship engines.

Other examples of modernization include guided vehicles and material-handling robots, while full automation is being tested at 40 different ports worldwide, according to a McKinsey & Company report. Some companies, looking even further into the future, are testing hyperloop technology to move containers at airplane speed via “HyperPorts.”

Crucial as these measures are, there is resistance from a predictable source. Many ports have unionized workforces that oppose changes which reduce their workload. At the L.A.-Long Beach ports, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has lobbied for delays in the permitting of labor-saving cranes and other automation. As Peter Tirschwell writes in the Journal of Commerce, “The ILWU has increasingly come to see automation as an existential threat and a microcosm of the larger threat of robotics displacing human labor. That is a marked shift from earlier years when they accepted terminals’ right to automate in return for various concessions, including lifetime income for any dockworker whose job is eliminated by automation.”

These disputes are occurring elsewhere, sometimes leading to strikes that have been common for decades at West Coast ports. It’s important, though, as America’s consumption needs and logistical challenges grow, that port managers and public officials who allocate money to ports overlook special pleading. Leveraging private-sector technology to improve performance will help overcome the backlog that ports now experience, producing cheaper products for the American consumer.

This column features additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan. 

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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