The US must increase investment in its congested transport infrastructure and sharply raise productivity at its ports or risk being overwhelmed by surging imports from Asia, industry leaders say.
?Every aspect of the supply chain is stretched,? Doug Tilden, chief executive of Marine Terminals, a port operator, told the Financial Times. ?It?s not a question of whether [a congestion crisis] is going to happen. It?s a question of when.?
The US needed to add capacity equal to the Port of New York and New Jersey every year to cope with a projected doubling in import volume by 2025, he said, but there was no sign of that happening.
Mr Tilden was among executives from freight carriers, port operators and transportation users at a conference on trans-Pacific trade in Long Beach, California, last week who pointed to China?s rapid expansion to highlight deficiencies in the US.
While China is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new infrastructure to support soaring exports, the ageing US transport system is failing to keep pace, they said.
US transport users have been warning about congestion since 2004, when large backlogs formed at the country?s ports and railway terminals during the peak shipping months before Christmas.
The situation improved last year after ports and railway operators hired thousands of additional workers. But the system will face renewed pressure over the next few years as infrastructure approaches full capacity.
Railway speeds are still slowing in spite of more investment?in the network?and truck companies cannot hire enough drivers to absorb the barrage of goods.
The country?s largest Pacific ports, in southern California, are in urban areas with little room to grow, while environmental regulations and hostile local communities restrict expansion elsewhere.
According to Brian Maher, chairman of Maher Terminals, a port operator, public opposition to infrastructure expansion had widened from the Nimby (?not in my back yard?) mentality to a new acronym: Banana (?build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything?).
And John Isbell, director of logistics for Nike, the sportswear manufacturer, has complained that the US has no coherent federal transportation policy: ?The CEOs of corporate America need to go to Washington DC and get them focused on freight.?
Nike has joined other big importers in an organisation called the Waterfront Coalition to lobby for more funding and political support for infrastructure improvements.
Productivity is another key concern.
Ron Widdows, chief executive of APL, a shipping company, said productivity at southern Californian ports was half that of Hong Kong and Singapore.
?The biggest single issue we face is that we?re not very efficient,? said Mr Tilden. ?We can build our way out of trouble, but that is problematic because of environmental issues, so the best solution is increased productivity.?
He predicted serious congestion would strike US ports by 2008.