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PORTS IN MINIATURE

Pop-up ports and dockyards are trying to ease supply chain congestion

A train in a dockyard full of containers in Savannah
Reuters/Octavio Jones
The ports are reproducing.
Published

The overstuffed supply chain is seeping inland in an effort to ease congestion at coastal ports.

Last month, the US government announced a grant to fund five pop-up ports in Georgia and North Carolina that will function as miniature, temporary inland ports. According to a report in FreightWaves, a trade publication, the containers will be brought to the pop-up ports, some 60 miles inland, by rail, where they’ll be picked up by trucks, reducing the traffic around the seaport. Pop-up ports, FreightWaves writes, “essentially brings the seaport closer to manufacturing, agriculture and population centers.”

Meanwhile, private container yards, many opened by retailers, have also been popping up to sop up the overflow from some of the US’s busiest ports, including a lot near the ports of LA and Long Beach commandeered by Walmart and now processing 500 containers a day, according to a LinkedIn post by Joe Metzger, a vice president at the retailer.

The pop-up yards are meant to improve port flow, the smooth movement of containers in and out of the ports by ship, rail and truck, which has been one of the primary challenges of the supply chain crisis. Despite cargo owners’ panic at compounding shipment delays, the experience at ports has often been a frustrating standstill: behind-schedule ships idling in the water, port truckers trapped in miles-long traffic to pick up containers. Ships couldn’t unload because dockyards were full, trucks couldn’t pick up full containers because they had no space to drop off the empty ones.

On Bloomberg’s “Odd Lots” podcast last week, John Porcari, the new White House port envoy who was appointed in August as part of a supply chain task force, said, “The fundamental issue is that the docks themselves are such valuable pieces of real estate that you don’t want the containers dwelling there a second longer than you have to.”

Average dwell times have doubled this year at the port of Savannah. At the Port of LA, where average dwell time was about two days in the years before the pandemic, some 40,000 containers have been on the dockyards for more than five days. About a third of those have been taking up space for 13 days or more.

In Georgia, the pop-up ports seem to be working. There are fewer ships waiting to pull into port, with 15 ships anchored outside Savannah, down from 22 two weeks before, Robert Morris, a spokesperson for the Georgia Port Authority told FreightWaves. Total containers at the port terminal also declined 16% from the peak of 85,000.

The trend toward pop-up ports is less haphazard than piling up containers in the streets and is expected to be a temporary fix—once the supply chain crisis eases in a year or two, the pop-up ports will go back to being empty lots.

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