Rutgers engineers address container backlog in N.J. ports

October 17, 2005

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Empty freight containers stacking up in seaport regions present shipping firms and government agencies with challenges in managing business assets and protecting the environment. Engineers from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, are proposing new strategies to deal with the issue at a regional level.

Containerized shipping has become the lifeblood of the global economy, efficiently transporting materials and manufactured goods from sellers on one side of the ocean to buyers on the other. Where the truck-sized metal shipping containers end up in this global shuffle, however, is another matter. Shifts in trade balance and the overall economy can result in the accumulation of empty containers.

In a presentation to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council Wednesday, Oct. 19, an engineer from Rutgers will describe a study now under way to monitor the buildup of empty containers in New Jersey and understand the business conditions that promote it. The study also will propose strategies to better manage container movement within the region.

"With the United States importing almost two times more goods by volume than we export, we end up with more loaded containers entering our country than leaving it," said Maria Boile, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rutgers. "In past years, shipping lines found it cheaper to keep building new containers overseas than to ship back empties, resulting in thousands of idle containers stacked seven-high on industrial sites around New Jersey's ports."

Some people find these stacks to be an eyesore and a source of noise pollution when winds whistle through gaps between the containers. Some are also concerned that the containers consume increasingly scarce land. From a business point-of-view, empty containers are an underutilized asset. A better understanding of their flow into and around the region can help boost their productive use and cut storage needs and consequent undesirable impacts.

Boile noted that we've entered a business cycle where the number of empty containers stored in the state appears to be dropping. Rising steel costs are making it more expensive to build new containers in or near the countries of origin. And with continuing growth in shipping traffic, demand for container space keeps rising. Shipping companies are now finding it economical to take back the empties.

"This is a cyclical business, however," said Boile, "and sometime in the future, we will start to accumulate empties again. So now is a good time to study the issue and prepare ourselves to effectively manage it. As a university, we can provide a broad and impartial view of the business and alert the region's stakeholders of any potential issues."

One aspect of the Rutgers study is to minimize the number of movements that containers make within the New York region or between ports on the East Coast. The goal will be to determine how quickly a container can be unloaded at its destination and either get refilled or returned empty to the shipping company for an ocean voyage back to its source. Current inefficiencies in local container movement may be contributing to container accumulation.

Another aspect is to propose secondary markets for surplus containers. Some may be sold or leased for use as temporary storage, while older ones may be singled out for steel recycling if reuse looks uneconomical. "There are costs to reuse and recycling," Boile said. "We will study local tax and depreciation incentives and advocate that they align with global shipping trends."

Boile and her colleague, visiting professor Sotiris Theofanis, are conducting their research as part of the Maritime Infrastructure Engineering and Management Program in Rutgers' Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation. The New Jersey Department of Transportation is sponsoring the study.

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