Inbound container traffic is up at the nation’s major ports, but congestion that plagued the docks last year does not appear to have returned, according to the National Retail Federation’s new monthly Port Tracker report.

“It’s a relief not to have merchandise piling up on the dock,” NRF Vice President and International Trade Counsel Erik Autor said. “We have more cargo coming in than last year, largely because of the end of textile and apparel quotas, but it’s flowing much more smoothly from the ships to the stores than we saw in 2004.

“We’re about to enter the peak of the shipping cycle for the holiday season, so this is good news.”

Port Tracker, which is produced by the data analysis firm Global Insight for NRF, was developed in response to severe port congestion experienced in 2004, particularly at West Coast ports, and other recent port disruptions that have threatened the retail industry’s supply of imported merchandise. The report will assess conditions each month at the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah and make forecasts for the following six months. The report looks at inbound container volume, the availability of trucks and railroad cars to move cargo out of the ports, labor conditions and other factors that affect cargo movement and congestion.

“With the increasing volume of merchandise imported from overseas today, ports are the biggest potential bottleneck faced by retailers,” Autor said. “Retailers need information and forecasting data that can provide them with a better handle on cargo movement at the ports and let them change plans when there’s a problem. In the past, they had to rely on a grapevine of sources ranging from terminal operators to the longshoremen’s union to news accounts. Port Tracker is going to put an end to the guessing game and give retailers the hard, solid information they need.”

Port Tracker is going to consider not only port issues but all of the transportation factors that affect the movement of goods through the ports to their ultimate destinations,” said Ben Hackett, executive managing director of Global Insight’s Global Transportation Practice. “We’re going to look at logistics on the dock and on the other side of the gate as well.”

In the initial August Port Tracker, the report’s three-level “Congestometer” found that congestion levels currently stand at “low” for 75% of the nation’s major ports, while 25% were at “medium” and none were at “high.” A low ranking means “business as usual” with no serious congestion, delays or diversion of cargo anticipated. Medium indicates a warning of potential for congestion at the port or the inland transportation system. High indicates existing congestion, significant delay and/or diversion of cargo.

The Congestometer uses a combination of recent historical data and short-term forecasts to assess the current congestion levels at the time the Port Tracker report is released each month. The ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah are all currently at low, while Tacoma and Seattle are currently at medium and no ports are at high. The volume of inbound containers is up at Tacoma because of ships diverted from Vancouver, Canada, due to the recent port truckers strike. Seattle is also seeing Vancouver traffic and ships diverted from California. Both ports have seen rapid growth in traffic since the beginning of the year and continued strong growth is expected over the next six months.

Nationwide, ports covered in the survey handled 1.23 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) of container traffic during June, the most recent month for which historical data is available. The figure is up 11.2% from the same month in 2004. Traffic is expected to grow to a peak of 1.32 million teus in October, up 7.6% from a year ago, before settling to 1.23 million teus in December, up 6.8% from last year. The next six months are expected to see significant increases in inbound conta