Spotlight 1: Landside Access to Seaports

Spotlight 1: Landside Access to Seaports

Throughput at U.S. container ports is expected to return to pre-recession levels as the economy rebounds from the economic downturn and the associated drop in container traffic that took place between December 2007 and June 2009 (JOC 2010b). As U.S. seaports modernize and expand to accommodate larger ships and more complex intermodal operations, however, their opportunities for growth and operational efficiency are often constrained by landside congestion and capacity challenges. Several key factors constrain the ability of the Nation's container ports to reduce landside congestion and increase access and freight traffic capacity. These factors include location in urban areas, land-use challenges, and funding.

Location in Major Metropolitan Areas

Most U.S. seaports are sited in or near major metropolitan areas that have infrastructure challenges and roads that need upgrades to allow them to accommodate large and heavy commercial trucks. Container ports produce significant traffic on local roads, adding to the levels of traffic and congestion already present in major metropolitan areas (table 10). This conflict between freight vehicular traffic and private automobile traffic can be mitigated when landside improvements to container ports are designed for both freight and passenger vehicles. For example, a large number of at-grade rail crossings coupled with an increasing amount of freight leaving container ports via rail can add to road congestion. In many of these cases new grade separations could alleviate that congestion, but constructing grade separations requires significant investment (NRC TRB NCHRP 2003). A recent major example of a grade separation project is the Alameda Corridor in southern California. This 20-mile rail cargo expressway links the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the Nation's rail network near downtown Los Angeles (ACTA 2010). Construction began in 1997 and operations began in April 2002, bypassing over 200 at-grade railroad crossings where cars and trucks used to wait for long freight trains to pass.

Land Values and Competing Uses

The growth in container traffic and containership size has made it necessary for container ports to expand and increase berth lengths, crane sizes, and railway and highway access. Often, however, expansion plans have conflicted with local community concerns. Container port operations are not always in line with local land-use policies, and often waterfront land is desired for higher value residential and commercial uses not compatible with the industrial operations of a seaport. These factors are often compounded by environmental concerns. It now takes about 10 years to bring a new marine terminal from the conceptual stages into operation (USDOT MARAD 2009). Beyond the port facility itself, a true systemwide intermodal strategy to address container port-related freight traffic movements requires the collaboration of all neighboring jurisdictions as well as private-sector partners to achieve a framework for balancing competing transportation and land development needs (NRC TRB NCHRP 2003).

Funding Challenges

As with the rest of the U.S. transportation system, funding for the expansion of container ports and port technology and efficiency improvements is a challenge. Historically, many ports and marine terminals have been financed by local taxes or private sector investment. However, in recent years not all ports or terminal operators have been able to finance the container port expansions and improvements necessary to accommodate today's larger container ships. Today, port efficiency improvements are typically implemented through public-private partnerships. A mix of grants and tax credits may be needed to support these improvements. Despite the challenging funding environment, many U.S. container ports continue to pursue port capacity expansion and intermodal improvements. The Nation's ports are expected to add approximately 12 million TEUs of capacity in the next several years (USDOT MARAD 2009).

Congestion Mitigation and Land-Use Initiatives at U.S. Seaports

In recent years many ports have begun to consider how local land access, port authorities, private sector freight partners, and local and regional governments can address land use and congestion mitigation issues collaboratively.

For example, in 2007 Washington State announced a container ports project to improve coordination and investment in rail and container port freight mobility. The initiative intends to examine current land-use regulations and their impacts on the effective functioning of container ports, and to provide recommendations for improvements on how to better accommodate both urban and industrial growth (Washington State 2009).

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) Goods Movement Program is working on a comprehensive regional goods movement plan and implementation strategy, scheduled for completion in 2011 (SCAG 2010). This plan will include an extensive analysis of current goods movement patterns, warehouse location and capacity levels, future intermodal freight system demand and technologies, and financing strategies that will allow the southern California region to develop infrastructure to meet future freight demand at an intermodal, systemwide level (SCAG, et al. 2008).

Landside congestion is also being mitigated through increased use of America's waterways as an extension or alternative to use of surface transportation modes. In August 2010, for example, the USDOT's Maritime Administration (MARAD) launched its America's Marine Highway Program to officially designate 18 marine corridors and other initiatives for further development to increase waterborne freight movements (figure 22). MARAD will distribute grants to sponsors of designated marine highway projects (USDOT MARAD 2010b). One of the projects selected for further development in the Marine Highway Program is the East Coast Marine Highway Initiative, a partnership between Port Canaveral, FL, the Port of New Bedford, MA, and the Port of Baltimore, MD. This initiative aims to develop marine highway service along the East Coast that could transport both domestic and international containers, trucks, and trailers, removing freight from the congested, 1,000-mile-long Interstate 95 corridor (JOC 2010c).

Similarly, the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Initiative, supported by Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, is a proposed upgrade of existing east-west highway and noncoastal connections to the ports of Corpus Christi and Beaumont. This project aims to provide less congested, more reliable routes for the movement of commercial freight and equipment for national security and emergency response. The highway is envisioned as having a dedicated freight element in some places, and if constructed could provide additional capacity and access to the ports via routes that do not travel through air quality non-attainment areas (Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Initiative, 2010).17

During the past few years, while U.S. container ports have been tackling these infrastructure challenges in response to increased demand for their services, they have also had to face rising competition from Mexican and Canadian ports. Mexico is currently planning new container port facilities that could potentially attract cargo otherwise bound for U.S. ports on the west coast. In 2005, Canada established a Pacific Gateway Strategy program, providing increased funding for infrastructure for its west coast ports to improve landside access and intermodal marine connections (USDOT MARAD 2009). To ensure that U.S. container ports remain competitive, ports and their partners (including shipping lines, truck and rail carriers, and other private and public entities) must continue to collaborate to address landside access and intermodal transportation system issues.

17 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) designates areas of the country where air pollution levels persistently exceed national ambient air quality standards as air quality "nonattainment" areas. An area can be in nonattainment status for any of a number of "criteria" air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide particulate matter, lead, ozone, or particulate matter. More information about ambient air quality standards can be accessed on the EPA's website: