Thinking Outside the Box: Productivity at Non-Container Ports

Thinking Outside the Box: Productivity at Non-Container Ports

By Meredith Martino


It’s hard to have a discussion about port productivity without using the word. The short-hand description of containerized cargo is one of the measurements that denotes the size of a vessel or the cargo throughput of a port. Cross TEUs with time, and the metric becomes the default description of the productivity of a marine terminal.

What if there are no TEUs?

Many ports throughout the Americas don’t handle containerized cargo or only handle small amounts of it. These ports move other cargo – dry bulk, liquid bulk, breakbulk and oversized/specialty cargo. Non-container ports may not be able to measure and discuss productivity in the same, crisp language as container ports, but their interest in maximizing assets, minimizing delays and increasing efficiency is similar to that of ports whose facilities are full of stacks of brightly-colored shipping containers.

For Sean Strawbridge, COO of the Port of Corpus Christi, productivity is “the efficiency by which you can move goods off vessels, through facilities and out to market or a product from the fields, through the port and out to be exported to the world.”

Dean Haen, Director of the Port of Green Bay, agrees, saying, “It all comes down to time. The ship, the crew, the fuel…those are all fixed. The port can’t affect how fast [goods]travel but can affect how fast they unload and load.”

Metrics with non-container ports are trickier. The Port of Everett’s Executive Director Les Reardanz called his port “a value port, not a tonnage port.” But Green Bay’s Haen emphasized that tonnage is often the default used, especially by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“These metrics influence Corps decisions and things like the placement of assets such as Coast Guard ice breakers,” said Haen. “Some ports have to work hard to get to one million tons, which is what they need to get dredged. The more activity you have, the more fully utilized you are, the more it influences.”

So many factors go into the efficiency equation, though: land use footprint of the port, age and status of equipment, labor on the terminal and special requirements of the cargo being handled, to name a few. The latter is a significant issue for the Port of Everett in Washington state.

“Safe handling of sensitive and high value cargo” is one of the ways the Port of Everett measures its productivity, according to Reardanz.

For the items that move through the port, shippers “usually only make one of them,” explained Lisa Lefeber, Chief of Policy and Communications at the port. Products such as combines, large pieces of pipe, wind turbine blades, aircraft parts, transformers, mining equipment and helicopters move through the port on a regular basis. And for the Port of Everett, handling that cargo flawlessly is just as important – maybe more so – than handling it as quickly as possible.

Haen echoed this sentiment: “Oversized and overweight things are their own animal.”

Container ports have the luxury of being able to plan for one type of cargo, and different customers can use the same kinds of equipment – ship-to-shore cranes, rubber tie gantry cranes, top picks, etc. Non-container ports have terminals that are designed with specific cargos in mind, and switching from one cargo to another or upgrading that equipment can be an expensive proposition because it is essentially a gamble on what cargo will be at that facility in the future.

“Every port is going through modernization of aging infrastructure,” said Everett’s Reardanz.

The Port of Everett is making major investments, supported by a recently announced $10 million TIGER grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, to its South Terminal. Phase one improvements will include a larger berth, a shortened dock, more rail, larger cranes, electrification of terminal equipment and the capacity for shorepower for vessels. Phase two will include more than $500 million in investments for public access to balance the working waterfront with a recreational waterfront.

In Corpus Christi, the port’s biggest challenge is not on land but in water. The federal navigation channel is currently at 45 feet, but approximately 25 percent of the ships that call on the port have a design draft deeper than that.

“Ships go out not fully loaded, which affects productivity,” said Strawbridge.

In both the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 and the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014, the channel was authorized to be deepened to 52 feet. The port has its share of the project’s required matching funds ready to go but has not been able to secure meaningful appropriations from Congress to move the deepening forward.

While it waits for Congress to invest in the water infrastructure, the port is also making investments in landside equipment at its bulk terminal to address constraint there.

Yet investments in facilities have to be balanced with expectations. While constraint is one factor limiting productivity, underutilized investments can pose a different challenge.

“The industry is littered with significant investments [driven by]thinking ‘if we build it, they will come’ and they will never recoup those investments,” explained Strawbridge. To limit the liability of its investments, the Port of Corpus Christi creates “off ramps” in its capital program decisions to adjust to market conditions. If it becomes apparent that the assumptions made for that project have changed, the port doesn’t have to continue down a path.

Haen is dealing with changing market conditions in Green Bay. A major petroleum pipeline went out of service this year after safety officials determined that it needed significant repairs. If the decision is made to reinvest in the pipe, it will take three years to repair or replace. Petroleum exports to Canada had been a source of growing cargo for the port – a business line that will not be easily replaced. The port is working to increase its cargo throughput with agriculture-related and paper product imports, seeking to utilize the assets it has to attract new business to the port.

“Don’t let pieces of equipment stand idle,” said Haen. “Offer [the customer]the least amount of double handling.”

This is often easier said than done. Strawbridge described it as a chicken-and-egg question – invest port dollars in facilities and equipment to attract business or wait for private investments to approach the port and then respond to meet their needs? He urged a balance between the two approaches.

On investing first or attracting business first, the Port of Everett is in an unusual position as an operating port. No private marine terminal operators lease land from the port.

“No one else invests in long-term infrastructure,” said Reardanz. The port is also located next door to Naval Station Everett, and the close proximity means that foreign investment near the military facility is discouraged.

Not being able to utilize private or foreign investment is a particular challenge for the Port of Everett, but limited infrastructure dollars are a common woe for ports.

“The biggest challenges are dollars and land,” said Reardanz.

AAPA continues to press in Washington for appropriations to fully fund the TIGER program at $1.25 billion and to ensure that 25 percent of grants awarded each year are for port projects. In FY 2016, port projects received only 12 percent of the total amount awarded. Last year’s FAST Act authorized $11 billion of new funds for freight, $500 million of which is for multimodal projects. For the first round of FASTLANE grants that were awarded this year under the new legislation, five ports received approximately $115 million in funding.

Still, this federal funding is only part of what ports say Washington could do to increase productivity at non-container ports.

Reardanz cited regulatory delays as a hindrance to improvements at ports.

“The regulatory environment is increasingly challenging,” he said. For example, WRRDA 2014 section 2102 authorized environmental dredging, but the Corps still hasn’t written the guidance to implement that portion of the legislation.

Coordinating among various agencies for permit approvals is also frustrating and time-consuming. “How do you mix and match approval processes?” Reardanz asked.

Strawbridge sees a glimmer of hope on the issue of energy, which relates to port productivity as well.

“There is a lot of bipartisan support for energy independence,” he said, discussing how the Port of Corpus Christi is poised to have one of the largest LNG export terminals in the country. The port is also taking advantage of the recent decision to lift the ban on U.S. crude exports.

As the United States moves to export more energy, low energy costs can help increase productivity at ports. But gains can also be made without cutting costs or investing in new equipment.

Strawbridge said the Port of Corpus Christi recently stood up a port optimization working group that includes port users (beneficial cargo owners), ship agents, pilots, linesmen and others. The group meets once a month and is an opportunity for those on the front lines to share ideas for making the port more productive.

“We find ideas that we think will have the biggest bang for the buck and try them out,” he said. “Sometimes it works. If not, we know we tried.”

Strawbridge called it “non-sexy stuff” but also said “it accumulates.”

Business process reengineering can yield improvements in productivity on the low end from 12 to 15 percent, said Strawbridge, and as high as 35 percent. However, it often requires addressing entrenched cultural norms.

“If someone can’t explain beyond ‘that’s the way we have always done things,’ then that’s a red flag to dig deeper and ask why,” he said.

The Port of Corpus Christi has used interns to stand on the terminals with stopwatches to record how long parts of the loading or unloading process take. After the port has that data, it then asks itself, “How can we speed up the time?”

It also attempts to learn from private sector entities such as Valero and Citgo, asking companies for their best practices. “Private does a much better job of driving on efficiency,” said Strawbridge.

At the end of the day, non-container ports feel the same pressure as container ports to deliver for their cities, counties, states and regions.

“Jobs is a big part of why we are here and why we exist,” said Reardanz. “We need to deliver a return on state and local taxes.”

Green Bay’s Haen said, “You know if you’re winning or losing by the business you’re bringing in.”