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April 13, 2021 12:45 PM, EDT

FMC Chairman Daniel Maffei: Port Congestion Likely to Last Through Summer

Daniel Maffei of FMC at swearing-in ceremonyDaniel Maffei is sworn in as Federal Maritime Commission chairman. (FMC.gov)

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Lingering congestion at the nation’s major ports is likely to continue throughout the summer and possibly later into the year, said Daniel Maffei, the new chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

“I am extremely concerned by it, partly because it’s not going to go away,” Maffei, a former two-term congressman, said on Transport Topics Radio on SiriusXM in his first broadcast interview since becoming chairman, “Yes, it’s gotten a little bit better and I expect and hope it won’t get as bad as it was, when 60-plus ships at the worst, lined up.

“But the fact is, we’ve stressed our supply chain to the max and beyond. But we do have a situation where we’d have this unprecedented import boom, and every ship is going to be on the water, and we’d have a shortage of empty containers… But I do think this is better than empty ports and not enough jobs for truckers and longshoremen.”

Maffei said that while the two largest U.S. ports — Los Angeles, and Long Beach, Calif. — get much of the attention because of congestion, other ports on the West Coast and now those on the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey and Savannah, Ga., are reporting longer times for ships to unload and go back to sea.

“We’re starting to see issues in other places,” Maffei said. “This is something that is impacting all of us; it’s just Los Angeles and Long Beach where it’s the toughest.”

Maffei and other port leaders have said congestion shows the need for continued investment in the nation’s ports. Maffei told TT that the proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure will bring some badly needed dollars, especially since many facilities are expecting long-term growth as containerships become significantly larger and more ports dredge deeper shipping channels and purchase more and larger cranes to handle those ships.

“I was very excited about what the president laid out, especially the ports where he mentioned them and there is $17 billion for ports and inland waterways. That’s nothing to sneeze at,” he said. “We’re falling behind China and Europe; I’ve seen their ports, and we’re falling behind.”

We’re starting to see issues in other places. This is something that is impacting all of us; it’s just Los Angeles and Long Beach where it’s the toughest.

FMC Chairman Daniel Maffei

Maffei served two terms in Congress, 2009-2011 and 2013-2015 and he was nominated to the FMC by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2016, then renominated by President Donald Trump and reconfirmed by the Senate in 2019. President Joe Biden appointed him chairman March 29. Maffei, a former journalist told TT he’s been interested in port and trade issues since before he was elected to Congress, and his central New York congressional district included the Port of Oswego, the first deepwater port on the Great Lakes. While in Congress, he, Rep. Richard Hanna and New York’s two senators secured funding to improve the port’s intermodal capacity and money was secured to dredge the port.

Maffei also said he and the other four commissioners are closely watching the situation at Port Houston, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law in 2020 that restricts the largest Neopanamax ships from using the Houston Shipping Channel. Supporters of the law acknowledge energy and oil companies lobbied the Legislature to pass the law because the they were concerned that with the channel being narrow it would make it difficult for their products to have priority.

FMC Commissioners Letter to... by Transport Topics

FMC commissioners Carl Bentzel and Louis Sola wrote Port Houston officials March 2 outlining their concerns. They said that restricting Neopanamax container vessels in the channel “could severely hamper the competitiveness of the Port of Houston and impact the long-term competitiveness of the entire Gulf of Mexico’s ocean container trade.”

“I am very concerned about this,” Maffei said. “The Federal Maritime Commission does have authority if it’s a discriminatory practice. I’m not going to say if it is, or isn’t yet, we don’t know enough yet.

Port Houston Response to FM... by Transport Topics

"Obviously, we’d like it to be resolved within Houston. It’s one of our best ports in the country. It would be a shame to set that back by the state Legislature micromanaging something that I think is up to the people who use the ports, like the pilots and the Coast Guard. They’re the safety experts. They can write the rules.”

Maffei also said the state may be interfering in interstate commerce with the law and that, he said, is a federal responsibility.

“What’s going on in Houston impacts trade up and down the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “If containers can’t go to Houston, they might not go to Gulfport, Mobile or Jacksonville.”

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