National port productivity standards for US ports continue to prove elusive despite the involvement of Congress.
WASHINGTON — US shippers hoping Uncle Sam would shine a light on the metrics that impact the reliability and costs of their containerized supply chains are bound for disappointment, after an industry working group delivered a list of tepid recommendations to the Department of Transportation.
While the group — comprised of shippers, railroads, terminal operators, port authorities, and labor unions — did recommend that the US government consider analysis of the utility of additional performance metrics and approaches to developing a national productivity database, the suggested metrics are technically outside of the scope provided by the congressional mandate that founded the group in the first place.
“We hoped the working group would be bold and try to identify key metrics that needed national attention, such as truck turn times, and work toward developing a national methodology for measuring this key factor affecting port performance,” said Jon Gold, group member and vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation.
It’s a hope that has been seconded by the US Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog group, that has said in no uncertain terms that data is the one clear solution to curbing the nation’s persistent port congestion.
But, in the words of the group’s labor representatives, “In the end, Congress gave (the Bureau of Labor Statistics) a mandate to have an annual report, and nothing more.”
The Port Performance Freight Statistics Working Group tasked with helping the DOT develop industry-wide metrics to gauge port productivity delivered its recommendations to the agency in December. Of the group’s five recommendations, nearly all center on the standardization of already-in-use units of measurement. There were no recommendations whatsoever that the DOT’s Bureau of Labor Statistics measure any new capacity, throughput, or productivity metrics.
It is, without a doubt, a blow to shippers who originally hoped for some additional oversight in port productivity, bridging gaps in the information available to the public. That sort of oversight may have been able mitigate the damage of the showdown between US West Coast longshoremen and waterfront employers that nearly crippled ports from Long Beach to Seattle in late 2014 and early 2015, shippers have argued.
However, it comes as little surprise to those who have followed the group closely since its inaugural meeting last July. Even before they first met, the original draft legislation establishing the group was stripped of language that would have tracked specific port productivity data before, during and after port labor negotiations. And when the group did meet, representatives of the railroad industry and labor unions not only actively opposed any recommendations that the DOT collect data on capacity, throughput, or productivity, but opposed the group’s very formation in the first place.
What recommendations the group eventually did send to the DOT do more for the standardization and consistency of data already collected, than it does to create opportunities for additional insights into port performance and freight movement.
In its official recommendations, the working group suggests the BTS use “nationally consistent” metrics for capacity, throughput, and port performance in an annual report.
The group recommended the first annual report should limit metrics to performance issues that are within a port’s control. In future years, though, the BTS should consider including metrics that assess issues beyond ports’ control, that have clear impacts on throughput and capacity, and for which nationally consistent data are available. That could include vessel on-time performance and chassis availability, the group said.
The group also suggested that the BTS consider including a series of “spotlight” issues to provide general context for trends that may affect port performance but for which there is currently no nationally consistent data. Spotlight issues could include availability of container chassis and truck parking, connectivity of ports to other modes outside their gates, pipeline connectivity, the transport of hazardous materials, federal and state port funding support, and international container weight regulation enforcement.
An additional recommendation suggested that “BTS should conduct further analysis to assess the national utility of additional performance-related metrics and potential approaches for developing nationally consistent datasets that are useful for assessing port performance.” Examples of such metrics include truck turn times, road and rail connectivity, rail and truck throughput, and vessel dwell time.
Those later recommendations for further analysis met significant pushback from members of the group’s labor block: Dennis Daggett, executive vice president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, Donald Marcus, president of the International Association of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, and Jeffrey Pavlak, legislative representative for the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.
In a published public comment, the three argued that the metrics suggested for further analysis fall outside the purview of the group’s mission and are, in no uncertain terms, “anti-union workplace productivity metrics… an ideologically-driven crusade against port and maritime unions.”
“This request, which is in the working group report, literally recommends that BTS should look into measuring the precise productivity metrics (truck turn times, vessel dwell time, etc.) that were removed by Congress,” they wrote. “It would be unparalleled for BTS to be providing such leading, and easily manipulated, statistical information that bears on collective bargaining.
According to the Daggett, Marcus, and Pavlak, the BTS should only ever aim to produce an annual report and not increase the frequency of data reporting or measurement, as “frequent data collection will be used by employers to seek federal intervention in the collective bargaining process.”
They also took issue with the “spotlight series” recommendation that made it into the group’s final suggestions, as “basically, this would mean that BTS would be asking for the ability to measure new capacity metrics.”
In contrast, members of the working group’s shippers block contended the recommendations to the bureau were not proactive enough.
The retail federation’s Jon Gold argued in public comment that the BTS should take more metrics — including turn times, connectivity, throughput, and dwell time — into consideration. Those metrics are not necessarily “within a port’s control,” Gold acknowledged.
“I am uncomfortable with the draft document’s presumption that ports are unable to influence or control the behavior of terminal operators, motor carriers, or vessel operators,” he said. “There is no question that factors outside of port control — such as the availability of chassis — contributed to (catastrophic) breakdowns.”
Gold’s message emphasizes his hope that the BTS does take those factors into further analysis. How likely that is, considering those factors were stripped from the original legislation and the incoming presidential administration has been vocally averse to increased regulatory oversight, is uncertain. At the very least, they will not be included in BTS’s first annual report a year from now.