Long lines of trucks at Ports of Newark and Elizabeth causing financial strain, traffic jams
Backups that have plagued operations at the Ports of Newark and Elizabeth since January have exploded in recent days into giant truck traffic jams, causing hundreds of tractor-trailers to idle up to seven hours in lines that stretch more than a mile and a half and threaten to spill onto the New Jersey Turnpike, according to truckers, terminal companies and leaders of the Port Authority.
The lines are causing headaches and financial difficulties for businesses large and small, from major retailers and the ports’ sprawling container terminals to individual truck drivers, many of whom are independent contractors who depend on quick turnarounds at the port to keep their businesses profitable.
A combination of factors appears to be causing the jams, including frigid weather, equipment problems, labor shortages and out-of-date work rules. The congestion also is exacerbating long-running tensions between different factions that must work together to keep the port functioning smoothly.
Many truckers blame port workers for the delays. “It’s terrible. I’m losing money sitting here,” said Julio Carmona, 46, a truck driver from Newark who joined the line to enter Port Newark Container Terminal at 1 p.m. Thursday and hoped he’d make it inside before the gates closed at 6. “I don’t know what’s happening, but it looks like these people on the piers don’t like to work.”
Jim McNamara, spokesman for the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), the union that represents dock workers, said blame lies not with his members but with the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor.
“There’s no ‘slowdown’ by Longshore workers,” McNamara said in one of two cryptic emails that formed the union’s only comment Thursday. “Also you may want to ask Waterfront Commission why it’s taking so long for new ILA hires, including many U.S. veterans.”
An official with the commission dismissed the suggestion that the agency, which oversees who works at the port, is responsible for the delays. Indeed, in a November 2013 press release, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said: “All parties agree that the Waterfront Commission was and is not delaying hiring.”
Meanwhile, some major retailers are nervous that the long lines could affect their business, and the goods available on the shelves of local stores.
“(T)he situation needs to be alleviated immediately,” Kelly Kolb, a lobbyist for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group, wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye. “Meeting these deadlines is critical as seasonal goods are expected on store shelves for the upcoming season.”
Combined, the ports of Newark and Elizabeth are the largest on the East Coast and the third-largest in the nation, handling 3.3 million shipping containers every year, said Richard Larrabee, director of port commerce for the Port Authority. A small portion of those containers leaves the port by rail, but the vast majority, about 87 percent, are shipped by truck, Larrabee said, most of them headed to businesses in the region.
The immediate cause of the traffic snarls appears to be this winter’s snowy weather. Sub-zero temperatures caused many of the terminals’ hydraulic machines to freeze, said Larrabee. Snow continues to block lanes of traffic inside the terminals, narrowing the paths for machinery. Snow and ice also clog the holes on shipping containers that machine operators use to pluck the boxes from stacks and place them on the wheeled carriers that connect to trucks.
“When you get these significant amounts of snow, terminals can become unable to operate,” said Jack Craig, chief operating officer of APM Terminals of North America, which operates one of the six terminals at the port. “We’re in the process of digging out from congestion that’s been built up over several weeks.”
But the bad weather hit a port that already was struggling to keep up with changes in the modern shipping industry. The average size of container ships arriving at the port nearly doubled in the last five years, Larrabee said. But workers at the port still operate under old practices in which the same “gang” of stevedores works a ship from the time it docks until it’s fully unloaded.
With larger ships comes longer unloading times, which reduces productivity, said Larrabee. Similar constrictions affect teams of mechanics, he said, who have been so busy fixing broken or frozen machines they’ve had less time to prepare enough carriers for containers.
A new contract signed by union members in April 2013 may allow managers more flexibility in scheduling workers, but those changes have yet to take effect.
“The goal of the new contract is to move to a system where every eight hours the gang is replaced by a fresh gang,” Larrabee said. “But we can’t do that until we dramatically increase the size of the workforce.”
Plans by the terminals and the union to hire hundreds of new longshoremen are stalled, however, by a court battle between the union, shippers and the Waterfront Commission. The New York Shipping Association, which represents the port’s employers, joined the union in a lawsuit in New Jersey Federal Court alleging the commission overstepped its authority by trying to regulate whom the shippers may hire.
The commission countered that all but one person included the union’s first batch of potential applicants was white, and some individuals had close connections to organized crime. Since then, the union has failed to present any new candidates, said Phoebe Sorial, the commission’s general counsel.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” Sorial said. “If you really need people, what is taking you so damn long?”
As the ice at the port begins to melt and the battle over hiring rages on, truckers sit in long lines and watch their fuel gauges drop.
“I spent $70 on fuel yesterday just sitting in line for seven hours,” said Jose Murindo, 53, a truck driver from Plainfield. “I get angry. If this keeps up, I’ll need to find a new job.”
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