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August 13, 2008 2:00 PM, EDT

Study Predicts Drayage Driver Shortage Due to Security Rules, Growing Imports

By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Aug. 11 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

A new study by an intermodal consulting firm forecasts a looming shortage of port drayage drivers because of new federal security regulations and a return to growth of freight imports by sea.

“There is a concern that many drivers that deem themselves at risk of being rejected are simply not applying for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential,” the report from the Tioga Group said. “This could cause a shortage of drivers where illegal immigrants are believed to make up a large part of the driver force.”

Southern California could lose 22% of its port drayage driver pool because many drivers cannot pass the immigration status check that is part of the process for obtaining the TWIC card that will be required after April 15. That estimate was made by John Husing, a California economist who did a study of Los Angeles-area port drayage, last year.

There are estimated to be at least 16,000 drivers who regularly move container cargo to and from Southern California ports, warehouses and rail yards.

Drivers have to pass immigration as well as criminal and terrorism background checks before the card is issued.

Tioga recommended California port officials do a detailed assessment of the potential reduction in the driver pool. Its Containerized Intermodal Goods Movement Assessment is based on more than 100 interviews with ocean, motor and rail carriers, shippers, ports and marketing companies.

At the same time that the driver pool might shrink, import cargo growth is expected to resume as early as next year, Tioga principal Dan Smith predicted.

International import volumes reached record levels last year, after five consecutive years when growth averaged 9% in Southern California, before declining this year on the West Coast. Import cargo has fallen a combined 10% this year as measured in 20-foot units at Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two biggest U.S. ports.

“Service providers operating in the important container activity chain are struggling with this uncertainty and with an unaccustomed need to shrink operations,” the report said.

Meanwhile, container exports have risen 20%. Exports are rising because of the weak dollar and a shift by grain exporters who use containers, which have been in short supply, instead of bulk vessels.

The report forecasts that other West Coast ports, including those in Canada, are a bigger threat to divert cargo from the West Coast than the expansion of the Panama Canal. Shipments through the Suez Canal to the U.S. East Coast are expected to grow as well.