Administration will emphasize enhancing ports’ military capabilities

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

The intermodal transportation system is supposed to operate much like a pipeline, moving goods seamlessly from supplier to customer. But one hears more often about choke points and interruptions in the flow of commerce.

The US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration was instructed to report to the Appropriations Committees of both houses of Congress on the performance of the intermodal system with respect to the port efficiency and congestion and with emphasis on port performance during the build-up for Operation Iraqi Freedom. MARAD delivered its report to Congress at the end of June. The information presented in the report was collected directly from key port, terminal, stevedore, and labor representatives at 23 ports by four MARAD-led DOT intermodal teams.

MARAD concluded that US ports handled the cargo spikes associated with the military buildup well. There were some congestion problems, MARAD noted, but those were mitigated within a few days. But the MARAD report also detailed challenges and obstacles to the improvement of the intermodal system going forward. These are associated primarily with the continuing growth in international trade, and the resulting tradeoffs between business and military interests in the ports. Increasing staging areas for containers, MARAD found, could have a negative impact on future military deployments, which rely heavily on ro/ro operations.

Operation Iraqi Freedom provided the opportunity to stress test the nation’s ports and mobilization technologies, according to the MARAD report. “The strategic commercial ports and the transportation industry did an outstanding job of supporting the military in OIF with minimal commercial cargo disruptions,” the report concluded.

MARAD found that the commercial ports and the transportation industry were able to support the military requirements with minimal commercial cargo disruptions. Four ports, Jacksonville, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, and Charleston, handled the lion’s share of the tonnage shipped from US ports, over 75%. “The occasional congestion problem was resolved within a few days,” MARAD found.

The intermodal system is expected to handle ever-increasing volumes of freight shipments, however, and therein lies its greatest challenge, according to the MARAD report. The Department of Transportation projects total freight volumes to increase by more than 50% in the next 20 years and that international container traffic will more than double from 2001 to 2020.

MARAD noted that military deployments require the large-scale use of ro-ro ships and facilities. “Loading of combat units requires substantial staging areas for vehicles and aircraft, adequate port rail infrastructure, and port labor that is skilled in handling non-containerized military equipment,” the report stated. “Therefore, the effectiveness of military cargo operations at the ports is directly tied to the availability of staging areas and rail infrastructure for sequencing such equipment arriving from the military installations.”

US ports are expected to expand their operations to meet container cargo growth. But if this leads ports to reduce the area available for non-containerized cargo, MARAD concluded, “facilities needed to support the unique military cargo handling requirements will become scarcer and this may reduce the ability of US ports to facilitate future military unit deployments.”

Besides the adequacy of cargo staging areas in the ports, the greatest concerns for both commercial operations and military deployments, according to MARAD, were landside access to ports, highway signage, channel and port dredging, increasing cargo volumes, financing, and intermodal connectivity. Two additional major concerns specific to military deployments were training and coordination among ports and shippers. There was also widespread agreement that congestion and infrastructure overload represented formidable chal