Descartes analyst shares insight on U.S. port infrastructure and supply chains

Brendan McCahill, Senior Vice President of Trade Data Content at Descartes, examines the current state of U.S. port infrastructure.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in LM's sister publication, Supply Chain Management Review. 

Last week when SCMR reported that the expanded Panama Canal may lead to reconfigured supply chains, analysts speculated that the impact was also apparent in many other ports along the U.S. East Coast, which were able to welcome the larger Neopanamax ships from the Canal and saw increased growth.

That issue is explored along with other concerns in an exclusive interview with Brendan McCahill, Senior Vice President of Trade Data Content at Descartes. 

Supply Chain Management Review: Will West Coast ports become even more reliant on calls from "mega vessels" now that the Panama Canal is accommodating more neopanamax ships? 

Brendan McCahill: West Coast ports are handling more of the mega vessels, and have very tight schedules on their berths for the carriers who are operating these. But, one needs to keep in mind that these mega vessels, operating primarily in the Pacific trades, can be switched into service between Asia and Europe as and if there is a significant change in demand.  One key move made over the past 18 months to bolster the ability of the west coast to accommodate more cargo was the ‘rationalization’ between Seattle and Tacoma ports to be able to coordinate berthing and schedules better; another interesting move that occurred recently was the purchase of Cal Cartage, one of the largest  container dray service provider in Southern California, by NFI, the  over the road truckload carrier with large operations in New Jersey and Texas. 

SCMR: Will this mean that West Coast ports will have unique pressures placed on infrastructure? 

McCahill: The infrastructure pressure has been growing over the years for sure. The movement of some cargo to Mexican gateways with intermodal service by the Kansas City Southern was a way to alleviate some of this pressure, as is alliance between Tacoma and Seattle, and the continued growth of Prince Rupert in Canada.

SCMR: What advances in port infrastructure will ports in the East and Gulf be working on? 

McCahill: The east coast ports have been working almost since the announcement by Panama of its intention to build the third set of locks. Port of NY/NJ actually raised the Bayonne Bridge (instead of building a new one) to increase the air draft needed for the larger vessels; they also have been working on dredging. Savannah and Charleston continue to update and upgrade cranes and work with the Corps of Engineers on dredging. Miami has built a tunnel to expedite trucks from the terminals to I 95 without clogging downtown traffic, and have worked on dredging to accommodate deeper draft vessels. The recent sale of the Florida East Coast railroad to Grupo Mexico may open some new opportunities for Florida ports served by the FEC as FEC has the primary route from Miami to Jacksonville and onto distribution centers in Atlanta and other key commercial hubs on the east coast.

SCMR: Severe hurricanes were quite disruptive this will ports prepare for such events in the future? 

McCahill: Really, the ports know that no one can control the weather. One of the key areas of action in any of these heavy diversion events is close cooperation with Customs and Border Enforcement to get the paperwork correct and not have the cargo entry impeded should some act of God impact the normal schedule.

SCMR: Any additional insights on port infrastructure?

McCahill: Frankly, all the ports are aware of the need to maximize the space they have. Ports have grounded containers and increased stacks, they have tried to move the chassis fleets off the terminals and continue to look as efficiencies that can be obtained with technology, partnering with labor as they move along this path.

About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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Article Topics

Descartes · ocean freight · Ports · All Topics
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