Spotlight 1: Landside Access to Seaports

Spotlight 1: Landside Access to Seaports

While container traffic at U.S. ports has increased steadily for many years, landside access to ports has not kept pace. Improving the intermodal connections for freight moving through ports remains a daunting task. Many cities grew around their ports, and thus many ports are now surrounded by dense urban environments. New rights-of-way for rail or truck traffic leaving port facilities are not available, restricting rail or road expansion.

Containerization has dramatically reduced the time needed to load and unload a vessel, but it has also contributed to landside congestion at ports. As containerships continue to increase in size, the number of containers they bring at one time also increases, shifting congestion from the waterways to the rail and truck infrastructure that serve the ports (USDOT FHWA 2008). The practice of double-stacking containers on railcars has been constrained in some locations because of low bridge and tunnel clearances. New facilities are needed to better enable the transfer of containers from ships to railcars and trucks. Finding locations for these large facilities in busy port and urban areas, however, is a problem (National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission 2007). While containerized international trade is predicted to double between 2001 and 2020, container capacity at U.S. ports has not grown in proportion to that of U.S. trading partners. By 2010, the container port in Singapore alone will have more container capacity than all the U.S. container ports combined (USDOT MARAD 2005). As of 2005, congestion resulting from landside access challenges was estimated to cost as much as $200 billion, wasting 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and 3.7 billion man-hours annually (USDOT MARAD 2005).

This section briefly presents the components of the intermodal freight system that operates at U.S. ports and discusses efforts at improving landside access and intermodal connectivity.

Intermodal Infrastructure at U.S. Ports


America's rail system consists of 162,000 miles of track that is privately owned and operated (AAR 2008). Following deregulation in 1980, the freight rail industry underwent years of downsizing, but it is now experiencing demand that is greater than capacity. Intermodal freight rail (the movement of containers or truck trailers from ports by rail) has increased substantially-from 3 million trailers and containers in 1980 to more than 12 million in 2007. Railroads have invested heavily in intermodal infrastructure to accommodate intermodal demand-for example, investing in intermodal freight cars, raising bridge and tunnel clearances to accommodate double-stacked containers, laying additional track, and implementing new communications systems (AAR 2008).

NHS Freight Connectors

Public roads that connect major intermodal freight terminals with the arterials and interstates of the National Highway System (NHS) are designated as NHS freight connectors. While these connectors are often short (often 2 miles long or less), they serve a vital purpose in America's economy. A 2000 study of NHS freight connectors found that connectors to ports had "twice the percent of mileage with pavement defi ciencies when compared to non-Interstate NHS routes" (USDOT FHWA 2000).

The Marine Transportation System

The Marine Transportation System (MTS) consists of all of the intermodal components that are part of the maritime domain, including ships, ports, inland waterways, intermodal rail and truck, and MTS users (USDOT MARAD 2005). Although in recent years the demands placed on ports have been significant, some ports have had excess waterside capacity because problems with their landside access have discouraged use of them (NRC TRB 2003).

Congestion Mitigation and Access-Improvement

U.S. economic expansion and international trade are inextricably linked to the resolution of congestion and landside access challenges at U.S. ports. In recognition of this need, public and private MTS stakeholders have examined strategies for reducing landside congestion and improving access.

A comprehensive research project to find "low-cost and quickly implementable approaches" to reduce freight access and congestion challenges is currently under way through the National Cooperative Freight Research Program (NCFRP). The approaches reviewed for this study include radio frequency identifi cation devices (RFID) on containers to allow operators to better position specific containers according to when they need to be transported, virtual container yards,12 congestion pricing, inland ports, extended business hours, truck-only lanes, and on-dock rail access (GAO 2008a).

traffic bottlenecks on the landside transportation system serving the nation's seaports affect seaports' performance and the effi cient movement of goods in and out of the ports.

In 2005, the most recent year for which data on both port freight activity and landside traffic delay are available, the top seaports ranked by port vessel calls were the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (table 7). The Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area was also the top ranked urban area in 2005 in terms of annual traffic delay per traveler, averaging about 72 hours of delay.

Growing traffic delays on the access routes serving the nation's largest seaports combined with the rising volumes of inbound and outbound cargo may result in increased congestion in the surrounding communities.

12 Virtual container yards are Web-based platforms where users can match empty containers to container needs at the dock rather than returning them to the terminal.