Ports See Huge Volume Swings in 2020

Ships dock at Port Everglades. (Broward County’s Port Everglades)

North American ports took a significant hit in the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused economic uncertainty and weakened consumer demand for goods, leading to sharp declines in port cargo volumes and an increase in canceled sailings.

By the second half of the year, however, volumes rebounded sharply at the largest U.S. seaports.

In Southern California, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach each reported record third-quarter volumes, marking the busiest three-month period in the history of both ports.

“Large retail stores are reopening, merchants are stocking up for the winter holidays and the increased use of e-commerce appears to be an enduring trend picked up by consumers during the recent stay-at-home orders,” said Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach. “Still, we must move ahead with caution during the remaining months of 2020 because the national economy continues to be heavily im­pacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Amid these dramatic swings in demand, ports have continued to pursue infrastructure improvement projects.


Shipping containers are stacked at the Mariel port in Mariel, Cuba. (Bloomberg News)

In October, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) ­awarded $220 million in grant funding to improve port facilities across 16 states and territories through its 2020 port infrastructure development program.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the fed­eral grants will improve America’s ports and noted that nearly half of the projects are located in “opportunity zones” established to revitalize economically distressed communities.

The grants include a $20.2 million award to expand central rail yard operations and add eight new tracks at the Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminal.

In the Great Lakes region, a $19.5 million grant will help connect truck and rail freight to the Port of Conneaut, a deep-water port in Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. The connector will provide infrastructure needed to facilitate commercial development in a region lacking last-mile truck freight connectivity to its Great Lakes port, according to DOT.

The American Association of Port Authorities praised the latest round of federal funding as a much needed boost to port operations across the country.

“AAPA and our member U.S. ports are extremely appreciative and grateful to MARAD and Congress for ensuring continued investment in our nation’s multimodal port infrastructure through the Port Infrastructure Development Program,” AAPA President Christopher Connor said. “These awards represent a significant step toward investing in one of our country’s most precious and important assets … our seaports.”

The port directory presented here provides an updated look at the size and scope of major seaports throughout North America. Annual figures for 20-foot equivalent units and freight tonnage are for the 2019 calendar year.

Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing: