A substantial increase in the Port of Tacoma’s container-shipping business this summer has the port, the Longshore Union, trucking companies, terminal managers and railroads scrambling to cope with the volume of new business.
That new business, while welcomed, has created logistical bottlenecks that are slowing the transit of shipping containers through the port’s terminals.
Some trucking companies are reporting their drivers are waiting four hours or longer to deliver or pick up a container. And clearing containers through the terminal gates has slowed to a crawl at times because of computer issues.
The port and its partners in the shipping business say they’re working diligently to untie the knots in the overburdened system.
“There’s no question that we’ve had to deal with some startup problems,” said Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina. “We had a meeting just last week with the trucking companies and the operators to talk about the problems and their solutions,” she said.
Scott Mason, Longshore Union Local 23 president, said the union is taking extraordinary measures to speed up the service.
“We’ve got some of the typical teething problems you’d expect to see in any transition this big,” he said.
The business boom was created by the move of four shipping lines that form the Grand Alliance consortium from Seattle to Tacoma at the end of June. Those four lines along with others associated with them are expected to increase the port’s container business by 25 percent or more monthly.
Mattina said the port, the union and the terminal operators are taking three major steps to cure the issues:
• The terminal operators are adding four additional longshore shifts a week to give truckers more time to enter and leave the Washington United Terminal where the Grand Alliance carriers are calling. The union is also adding middle-of-the-night “hoot owl” shifts to its schedule to process ships more quickly, especially ships that are running behind schedule.
• Terminal operator Washington United Terminal is bringing in relief managers from California to meet the demand for service.
• And WUT is flying in a computer systems expert from the operator’s homebase in Korea to deal hands-on with the computer system transition issues.
Mason said the Longshore Union is elevating 75 casual workers to B worker status. That follows the promotion of a like number of B workers to A status earlier this summer. The union is also calling in workers on its waiting list to keep the casual worker ranks at 350 workers.
“We had 3,000 casual shifts last month,” said Mason. Casual longshore workers pick up extra work after all available A and B workers are occupied.
And the union is taking the extraordinary step of allowing regular longshore workers to temporarily perform longshore clerk’s work to supplement the overtaxed clerks. Eventually, the union will elevate 16 regular workers to clerks permanently to handle the longer-term increased demand for gatehouse work. Those temporary workers are manning the gates at the Washington United Terminal to expand their hours.
Port Commission President Dick Marzano, himself a longshoreman, said those gate positions are being made steady positions where workers will report to the same job every day rather than rotate through them based on seniority and availability.
That will give them more continuity and familiarity with the terminal gate jobs and computer systems.
Longshore president Mason said the haste with which the move had to be accomplished complicated the transition.
The port had expected a decision from the shipping lines late last year, but they didn’t announce their decision until early spring, giving the port and the terminal operator just three months to prepare for the changeover. WUT is spending money freely to buy equipment for the terminal to increase its capacity, said Mason, but learning how to operate and maintain that equipment efficiently takes time. More equipment is on order, but wasn’t available as quickly as was needed.
During the transition, WUT has moved its normal customer, Hyundai Merchant Marine, to another terminal, APM near the port headquarters on the Sitcum Waterway, while it gears up to the Grand Alliance.
That move has put the port headquarters in the middle of a working container terminal with trucks shuttling containers from APM to both the North and South Intermodal Rail Yards. The port has closed its terminal observation tower to visitors during the transition and has encouraged its own workers to park at the distant Fabulich Center and take shuttles to the port headquarters.