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East Coast ports are booming while West Coast facilities lag

Shipping containers are stacked together at the Port of Baltimore on Aug. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Ports on opposite coasts reported drastically different cargo volumes in August – with one having its biggest month ever and another having its biggest decline of the year.

The Port of Los Angeles, the biggest port in the U.S., handled around 806,000 twenty-foot containers in August, approximately 15% fewer than the same period a year ago, and its biggest drop since December.

Conversely, Georgia’s Port of Savannah saw its busiest month on record, handling 575,513 containers for the month. That’s an increase of 18.5%, or 89,918 containers over the same month last year.

Counting the July volume of 530,800 containers, the Port of Savannah’s August performance made for the fastest period in which the port has cleared the 1 million mark in a fiscal year.

So what’s going on? Why the difference?

“The Port of Savannah’s geographic and capacity advantages remain a driving force behind current and new customers deciding to move cargo through Georgia,” said GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch. “Our central location and service through the largest container terminal in the Western Hemisphere offers speed to market and unmatched room to grow.”

Port of Los Angeles port director Gene Seroka also gave an explanation. “Some shippers decided to divert cargo to East and Gulf Coast ports to avoid congestion, as well as to avoid West Coast contract negotiations,” he said.

It isn’t just these two ports.

The most recent data available from the Port of Baltimore showed a jump in general cargo tonnage for June of this year from the previous June – 1.05 million tons, up from 954 million tons. The June figure followed five months in 2022 in which general cargo tonnage had lagged slightly from the previous year.

William P. Doyle, the Maryland Port Administration’s executive director, said that the Port of Baltimore has been aided by a strong distribution network.

“That has been a key reason why we have not had the significant supply chain issues that other ports have experienced and in fact have handled more than 70 ‘ad hoc’ ship calls during the recovery stages of the pandemic – vessels diverted to Baltimore that were not on a regularly scheduled service call,” Doyle said.

Maryland officials earlier this year announced that the Port of Baltimore has been added to an existing international container service with the Mediterranean Shipping Company that will include port visits between Asia and the Panama Canal as well as the U.S. and the Suez Canal.

The Port of Baltimore also has begun to put into operation four additional supersized, Neo-Panamax container cranes, part of a $166 million investment made by Ports America Chesapeake at the Seagirt Marine Terminal.  Having an additional deep berth allows the port to serve supersized cargo ships simultaneously.

The West Coast’s Port of Oakland hasn’t yet reported August numbers but saw a significant 28% dip in July. The port blamed a trucker protest for the decline, saying it “snarled port operations, slowing the unloading of inbound ships and delaying imports from leaving the terminals.” The protest also caused shippers to divert from the port, some even opting to travel to the East Coast.

The East Coast’s South Carolina Ports and the Port of Virginia on the other hand both reported big months for August, with South Carolina recording a 10% increase over June and Virginia reporting its biggest month in its history.

Overall, cargo volume at the Port of New York and New Jersey has doubled over last year, according to FreightWaves, while imports at the Port of LA have been cut in half.

FreightWaves also cited rising domestic transportation costs as a reason for the shift.

“Cost effectiveness is driving shippers to take advantage of the savings of going directly to the East Coast, where most of the consumption occurs,” said Zach Strickland, FreightWaves market analyst. “This action has led to a rapidly easing Southern California transportation market that had become the backbone of many carrier networks during the pandemic.”


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