The Port of Boston TEU throughput dropped 9% to 283,061 TEUs in FY 2020 – so why was that a good year?

When is a bad year good? That’s the question buried in the 2020 numbers for Massport’s Paul W. Conley Terminal, the Port of Boston’s container facility. In 2020 the port handled FY (July-June) 283,061 TEUs [CY 268,418 TEUs] down from the record setting FY 2019 totals of 307,331 TEUs, which had marked the fifth consecutive year that the Port set a record. It looked like the Port was headed for a 350,000 TEU record, setting up the possibility of eclipsing 400,000 TEUs – a once unthinkable number – in the very near future. So, why didn’t the upward trajectory continue?

Conley Terminal Volumes in 2020

Fiscal Year Import TEU Export TEU Empty TEU Total TEU
FY 2020 143665 75120 64276 283061
Cal Year Import TEU Export TEU Empty TEU Total TEU
CY 2020 137098 79133 52187 268418


Source: Massport

What happened to the Port, was what happened to us all – the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the regional economics of each area are slightly different and the impacts are different in the Greater Boston area than say the vast Long Beach-Los Angeles metro area.

The Boston area, and indeed virtually the entire freight catchment area for the Port of Boston, is weighted heavily in services, especially the hospitality sector. The lockdowns throughout the New England region contributed to a decline in demand at a number of levels. For example, there are over fifty institutes of higher learning in the Greater Boston area (Route 128 belt) and each year over 150,000 students are added to the City’s population of nearly 700,000. If the semi-circle is widened out a few more miles, it is estimated that student population tops 250,000. With the lockdown, there were fewer students staying in the Boston area which along with closures of restaurants and hotels and the near eclipse of tourism dampened demand for high value consumer goods within the arc. Similarly, exports to global markets were also impacted as each area went through the cycle of openings, lockdowns and re-openings according to the effectiveness of pandemic mitigations.

Massport itself was hit in a number of ways as revenue from Logan International Airport plummeted as flights dropped. Additionally, the 2020 cruise season evaporated like sea smoke with the curtailing of cruise ship calls, and the port was subject to first half bypasses as demand fell.

However, a secondary trend also wedged its way into mainstream economics during the COVID crisis: E-commerce. New England, and really the entire Northeast United States, with high density metropolitan areas and above average household incomes [for example, Boston’s household income is $71,834 and $79,835 for Massachusetts] are tailor-made for e-commerce. And the pandemic’s shift to remote work contributed to an already altered consumer buying behavior in the region

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