By Clarissa Hawes of FreightWaves.com,
Despite recent reports that congestion issues are easing on the water at California’s major ports, drayage truckers claim this isn’t the case for them — as long wait times, a flawed appointment system and other efficiency issues continue to plague marine terminal operators in the state.
As Port of Oakland officials are urging ocean carriers to add direct services to their port to help relieve supply chain bottlenecks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, truckers whose livelihoods depend on how many containers they can turn in a day are bracing for possible extra capacity if steamship lines skip Southern California and head to Oakland.
“All we hear in the news is the lack of congestion on the waterside and we can confirm that, but we are drowning on the landside by long lines and staffing issues at the terminals,” Bill Aboudi, president of AB Trucking, told FreightWaves this week.
An unreliable appointment system has drayage companies checking day and night to find open slots and vessel schedule changes — which Aboudi compared to playing musical chairs — have truckers concerned they won’t be able to handle a container volume increase if some of these issues aren’t addressed soon.
A group of trucking company owners, each with about 30 years of drayage experience under their belts, are working with port officials in Oakland to create a task force to air their grievances and open the lines of communications with marine terminal operators.
Robert Bernando, communications director at the Port of Oakland, confirmed in an email to FreightWaves that a series of three meetings is planned between port truckers and the terminals “to discuss communications and operational guidelines.”
He didn’t provide additional information about possible dates for the task force except to note that “these meetings are not related to the California congestion issue” because the “Port of Oakland is not experiencing any port congestion.”
“Our operations are normal and wait times are normal (no delays),” Bernando told FreightWaves.
Port truckers disagree.
Recently, some truckers were lined up for 10 hours to grab containers from one of the terminals that couldn’t handle the influx of trucks, even though the drivers had appointment times.
“I say the Port of Oakland is my port and I want more business coming here, but I’ve got to be able to handle it,” Aboudi said. “And right now, the terminal operators are holding all the cards and we’re not able to handle it, which makes us look inefficient.”
The port truckers also want to discuss terminal operators’ ticketing and banning of drivers for 30 days to upward of 180 days for returning a chassis to the wrong equipment provider, failing to understand a security guard’s instructions or other minor infractions, night gate issues and other fees.
During a five-day trip to the major ports in California in late October, FreightWaves interviewed multiple company executives who disputed the widely reported message that a driver shortage was largely to blame for the port congestion issues in California.
Instead, company officials said they were actually shedding drivers because of the lack of consistent work due to chokepoints, equipment and ongoing efficiency issues.
Proposed supply chain solution misses the mark
Truckers claim proposed solutions by port officials and state and federal lawmakers to alleviate supply chain chokepoints in California largely miss the mark. One example is the recent announcement that the state plans to issue temporary permits to increase truck weight limits to 88,000 pounds — up from 80,000 pounds combined gross vehicle weight — on state highways to reduce container backlogs at the ports in California.
Since there’s no way to add cargo to shipping containers that were weighed and sealed overseas months ago to comply with U.S. highway weight limits, Aboudi and others question the effectiveness of the state’s attempt to reduce the immediate logjam at California’s ports.
“I just pulled a customer’s reefer container that’s been on the water for three months today so this 88,000-pound weight increase isn’t going to help them,” Aboudi told FreightWaves. “I know some customers are just receiving cargo they ordered from Asia back in June.”
Then there’s the issue of truckers getting permits from local jurisdictions to travel on certain roads and bridge weight restrictions throughout the state that could hinder efficiency efforts to haul heavier import loads from the ports.
“Do you think the government will move quickly to start issuing permits? I bet some don’t even know this executive order even exists,” Aboudi said.
The California Department of Transportation order would require truckers to ensure the gross weight of 88,000 pounds is distributed properly across the axles, which would mean adding additional axles to the truck and trailer in order to remain legal, Aboudi said.
“This would require specialty equipment — and adding an axle on 40-foot chassis that are already in high demand to handle these overweight containers would be a challenge,” he said. “Chassis makers can’t build them fast enough and now you’re asking for specialty equipment.”
Once truckers leave the terminals with these oversize containers, they risk being stopped by law enforcement before they can find a nearby scale and weigh or a customer may underload the driver’s truck if unsure about the container’s exact weight.
“You face being overweight and having to keep going back and forth and having your truck unloaded and reloaded to be legal,” Aboudi said. “These are things that happen in trucking that you know just happens all with time and we deal with it. But it’s a pain.”
Lunar New Year a chance to recalibrate?
The president of a Southern California drayage company said the Lunar New Year, which starts Feb. 1, may be the recalibration the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach need to clear out the backlog as factories in China shut down for two weeks or more.
“The salvation I see is this is a time when we can hit the clock and we’ve got 30, 40, maybe 50 days to get the congestion out and reset the game board to zero,” the company executive, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation by terminal operators, told FreightWaves.
The executive ramped up operations to 18 drivers during the pandemic to handle the e-commerce boom as consumers’ spending habits changed from shopping at brick-and-mortar stores to online. He’s since had to shave a few owner-operators and a company driver from his payroll since mid-October in an effort to keep his business afloat.
While he and other drayage companies expanded operations to accommodate increased e-commerce, the ports and terminal operators in California did not develop a long-term infrastructure plan to handle the massive container volume surge.
“We can all see and feel that the supply chain is teetering on the edge. You can feel it because you’re paying more everywhere,” the drayage company executive said. “But in February, if we don’t clear out the congestion and we still have 80 vessels offshore and the next peak season merges with the current one, there’s no way out.”