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FMC Eyeing New Way to Unclog Cargo Congestion

The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) is weighing whether a 60-day emergency order forcing greater transparency on cargo space from carriers could help ease congestion as it looks to meet deadlines set by the new Ocean Shipping Reform Act (OSRA).

The FMC said Thursday it’s asking the public to weigh in on an order requiring carriers and marine terminal operators to share information with shippers, truckers and railroads on available cargo space once the 30-day comment period closes.

Those looking to weigh in are being asked to respond to three key issues when submitting their comments: whether the congestion situation is an emergency, whether an emergency order addresses the issues and “the appropriate scope” of an order issued by the FMC.

The move is aimed at directly addressing port congestion that has spilled out to other modes of transportation and, more specifically, the issue of long-dwelling containers that has now been funneled to other ports in the country.

“Over the last two years, there have been a variety of strategies employed by industry participants to reduce congestion throughout the U.S. ocean transportation system,” the FMC said in its comment request. “For example, some carriers have diverted vessel services away from the most congested port areas in an effort to alleviate severe cargo congestion at major U..S. ports. This shift, however, has often resulted in increased congestion at previously non- or less-congested U.S. port areas or regions.”

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That shift that has taken place has allowed West Coast ports to work on clearing their own docks as the issue of long-dwelling containers moved to ports on the East and Gulf coasts.

“Total U.S. port congestion, measured by the number of containers on ships waiting to berth, average ship waiting times at key U.S. ports and container dwell time have all decreased in recent months,” the FMC said. “Relevant metrics, however, remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.”

OSRA, which was signed into law in June and hailed by retail and apparel trade associations, gives the FMC greater powers in regulating carrier activities within the scope of maritime goods movement. That includes the ability to issue emergency orders, while also tightening the rules and requirements around carrier fees charged to shippers.

The commission is considering an emergency order after it previously notified carriers of their need to comply with the new rules around how they bill shippers for detention and demurrage fees, reorganized its enforcement department and established an interim process for complaint submissions.

On Friday, the FMC added to its list of OSRA-related actions by setting up a new web page where information on the law’s implementation can be found.

“OSRA 2022 is now law and the Federal Maritime Commission intends to act expeditiously to implement both the letter and the spirit of the Act,” FMC chair Daniel Maffei said in a statement Friday. “Establishing a resource where the public can easily and quickly see all relevant materials related to OSRA implementation is critical to keeping all interested constituencies informed of progress the Commission is making in meeting the mandates established by Congress and the President.”

Maffei last week said he’d “do everything in my power” to make sure carriers were not getting free container storage by forcing shippers and truckers to pay for that in cases where a carrier makes it difficult to return empty containers. The issue has been a long-standing one with many shippers and truckers lamenting the difficulty in making appointments to return empty containers.

The strong words came after Maffei visited with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which will institute a fee program next month for ocean lines that are bringing in more containers than what is leaving the port. The fee will be assessed on a quarterly basis.

The issue of carriers not taking their empties back has caused what Maffei called an “untenable situation” across the country that is now under investigation by the FMC.