While America's container ports serve as gateways for both merchandise imports and exports, overall they handle more TEUs of imports than exports. In 2009, the U.S. deficit in maritime container traffic—the gap between exports and imports—narrowed to 4.1 million TEUs as maritime container imports fell 15 percent while exports fell 8 percent (figure 8). This marked the third year in a row that the deficit narrowed, following record high imports in 2006. Between 2007 and 2009, although the United States exported less merchandise than it imported, imports declined steeply because of the economic slowdown at home. Exports grew at a modest pace and did not decline as much as imports.
Before 1998, the difference between U.S. international container imports and exports was less than 1 million TEUs per year. By 2009, this gap was more than 4 million TEUs, with imports accounting for a larger share of total container traffic (figure 8). The gap had also reached more than 4 million earlier, in 2001, and grew to 10 million in 2006 before narrowing. In 2009, maritime container imports passing through U.S. seaports accounted for 58 percent of total container traffic. While this is a steady increase from 51 percent in 1995, it is down from the peak in 2006 when imports accounted for 67 percent of total container traffic. The decline in the relative share of imports reflects a relative rebound in container exports, likely due to the fall of the U.S. dollar relative to the European euro and other major currencies making American goods more affordable overseas. This contributed to the rise in maritime container exports. A stronger dollar provides Americans with greater purchasing power and results in more goods being imported, while a weaker dollar encourages foreign buyers to purchase more U.S. products.10
Figure 9 shows the location of the Nation's top 25 maritime container port gateways for U.S. international containerized exports and imports in 2009. The top three gateways were Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York/New Jersey. Containerized goods handled by these leading ports serve the international trade needs of coastal states with seaports as well as landlocked states that depend on seaports to export and import merchandise. The containerized cargo arrives at and leaves the seaports mostly by rail or truck, carried by either a single transportation mode or via an intermodal truck-rail combination.
Container traffic gap varied for the major seaports in 2009 (figure 10). At Los Angeles, the Nation's largest container port, the volume of imported TEUs exceeded exports by nearly 2 million, reflecting inbound trade with Asia, particularly China. At the port of Houston, on the other hand, exported TEUs were 292,000 more than imports. This difference reflects variation in each port's foreign trading partners, primary commodities handled, and services provided by ocean-shipping carriers that call at the ports.
Overall U.S. international maritime container traffic nearly doubled between 1995 and 2009 (figure 11). In 2009, about 25 million loaded TEUs of U.S. international oceanborne trade moved through U.S. container ports, up from 13 million in 1995 (JOC PIERS 2010a). If the current rebound follows the pattern experienced after 2001, long-term growth is likely to resume after the U.S. and global economies recover. The upturn experienced during the first half of 2010 may be evidence of the beginning of that turnaround.
In 2009, U.S. container ports handled a daily average of 68,000 TEUs, up from 37,000 TEUs per day in 1995, but down from the peak of 78,000 in 2008 (table 3). The large number of containers moving through the Nation's seaports highlights the significance of container traffic and its potential impacts on the economy, local communities, national security, and the natural environment. It also underscores the challenges of handling this cargo efficiently, and addressing such challenges as alleviating highway congestion around the seaports, improving landside access to ports, and removing freight bottlenecks at intermodal transfer locations where trucks and railroads connect to marine terminals.
Greater use of containers will require growth in the intermodal capacity needed to handle the increased flow of goods. For example, in 2009, loaded container throughput for the port of New York/New Jersey, the Nation's third largest container port, was 3.6 million TEUs (PANYNJ 2010). Assuming a typical line-haul truck carries an equivalent of two TEUs, this annual throughput translates into 1.8 million one-way truck trips per year.11 This is equivalent to nearly 7,000 truck trips each weekday resulting from containerized cargo. Assuming that each trailer is approximately 40 feet long, the trailers would stretch about 53 miles on a typical work day if lined up end to end. By comparison, the estimate was 46 miles in 2004 and 30 miles in 1999.
10 Because the merchandise trade deficit is more complicated than simple changes in relative prices, a fall in the U.S. dollar is not always effective in closing the gap between exports and imports. Domestic recessions are often more effective in cutting demand for imports and therefore reducing the trade balance.
11 A line-haul truck is usually a tractor-trailer combination of three or more axles. A typical line-haul trailer is approximately 40 to 48 feet long and in most States is permitted to move a maximum of 80,000 pounds gross weight.