Trends in Container Throughput

Trends in Container Throughput

While America's container seaports serve as gateways for both merchandise imports and exports, overall they handle more TEUs of imports than exports. In 2008, the U.S. defi cit in maritime container traffic-the gap between exports and imports-narrowed to 6 million TEUs as maritime container imports fell 8 percent and exports grew 6 percent (figure 7). This marked the second year in a row that the deficit fell following record high imports in 2006. In 2007 and 2008, although the United States exported less abroad than it imported, imports declined steeply because of the economic slowdown at home. Exports grew at a modest pace.

Before 1998, the defi cit of U.S. international container traffic was less than 1 million TEUs per year, but by 2008, this gap had signifi cantly widened, with imports accounting for a larger share of the total container traffic (figure 7). In 2008, maritime container imports passing through U.S. seaports accounted for 61 percent of total container traffic, a sizeable increase from 51 percent in 1995. However, container exports handled by the ports seem to be rebounding, reaching 39 percent of total container traffic in 2008, an increase from a low of 33 percent in 2005. A likely factor for the surge in exports during 2007 and 2008 is the fall of the U.S. dollar relative to the European euro and other currencies. During this period, as the dollar fell against the euro, American goods became 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 leads to foreign buyers purchasing more U.S. products.5

Figure 8 shows the location of the nation's top 25 maritime container ports for U.S. international containerized exports and imports in 2008. The top three container port gateways were Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York/New Jersey. The containerized exports and imports handled by these leading ports serve the international trade needs of every state, both coastal states with seaports as well as landlocked states that depend on seaports for their merchandise trade export and imports. The containerized cargo arrives and leaves the seaports either by rail or truck as single modes or by intermodal truck-rail combination.

Overall U.S. international maritime container traffic more than doubled between 1995 and 2008 (figure 9). In 2008, about 28 million TEUs of U.S. international oceanborne trade moved through U.S. container ports, up from 13 million in 1995 (JOC PIERS 2009b). As the rebound after the low year in 2001 suggests, long-term growth is likely to resume after the U.S. and global economies recover from the current worldwide economic downturn.

In 2008, U.S. container ports handled a daily average of 77,000 TEUs, up from 37,000 TEUs per day in 1995. This 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, 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.

A major factor affecting landside access to U.S. container ports is the continuing growth of containerization. Growth in containerization is directly related to the provision of adequate intermodal capacity to handle the associated increase in the level of landside traffic. For example, on a typical day in 2008, container throughput for the New York/New Jersey port, the nation's third largest container port, was 5,265,053 TEUs (PANYNJ 2009). Assuming a typical line-haul truck6 carries an equivalent of two TEUs, this annual throughput translates into 2,632,526 one-way truck trips per year. This is equivalent to 10,125 truck trips each weekday resulting from containerized cargo. At approximately 40 feet per trailer, on a typical work day the trailers would stretch about 77 miles if lined up end to end.

5 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.

6 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 is permitted in most states to move a maximum of 80,000 pounds gross weight.