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High Cargo Import Levels Expected at US Ports as Congestion Persists

Cargo imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to be at near-record levels this spring and summer as consumer demand and supply chain challenges continue to result in congestion, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Tuesday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Consumers are still spending and the supply chain is still working to keep up,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Growth rates have slowed down from the off-the-charts numbers we saw last year, but volume is close to the highest we’ve ever seen. Everyone in the supply chain is trying to reduce congestion, but there is still work to be done. Retailers are also planning for potential additional disruptions this summer from West Coast port labor contract negotiations.”

NRF recently sent a letter urging the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association to begin contract negotiations well before their July 1 contract expiration to avoid any delay in reaching a settlement and additional congestion that might result.

“Congestion continues on both coasts, with ships queuing for berths at multiple ports,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Problems remain with clearing import containers to their inland destinations, while export containers are still being held back due to lack of space at the terminals. Until supply chain problems are sorted out with more drivers, trucks and inland storage space, we do not expect to see a rapid decline in the backlogs being experienced.”

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U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.16 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in January, up 3.6 percent from December and 5.2 percent year-over-year. Ports have not yet reported February numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.07 million TEU, a 10.5 percent year-over-year increase.

March is forecast at 2.17 million TEU, down 4.5 percent, while April shipments are projected to be up 4.2 percent to 2.24 million TEU. Further down the road, May cargo containers reaching U.S. ports are expected to decline 3.2 percent compared to last year to 2.26 million TEU, with June shipments rising 4 percent to  2.23 million TEU, and July’s up 3 percent to 2.26 million TEU.

Global Port Tracker noted that many of those monthly totals will come close to the record of 2.33 million TEU that was set last May. That number was up more than 50 percent year-over-year due to the shutdown of stores and overseas factories in spring 2020 at the pandemic’s onset.

The first six months of 2022 are expected to total 13.1 million TEU, up 2.4 percent year-over-year. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s record high of 22 million TEU that was set despite the pandemic.

Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, Calif.; and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.,; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.