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December 16, 2017
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Intermodal congestion problems must be tackled holistically, FMC commissioner says

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Dye says solutions must go beyond individual carriers and ports and must come from industry, not feds.

The congestion problems that have plagued U.S. container ports over the past couple of years can only be solved if they're addressed at the industry level, not by individual carriers and ports or by the federal government, according to Rebecca F. Dye, a commissioner on the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) and head of an initiative launched last week to help end bottlenecks impairing the nationwide flow of containerized cargoes.

"We need to lift the conversation above the individual company or port level, and talk about what's happening elsewhere in the supply chain that could affect the bottleneck in the ports," Dye said in a recent interview with DC Velocity, Supply Chain Quarterly's sister publication. In an earlier announcement about the "supply chain innovation" initiative she heads, Dye said the FMC is encouraging "innovation teams" of maritime-industry stakeholders to consider the needs of the global supply chain, identify actionable recommendations, and "move beyond discussion to action."

The teams, charged with developing ways to overcome obstacles to the efficient movement of containerized cargo, convened for the first time May 3-4 in Washington. Experts from 34 organizations—including ports, shippers, carriers, freight forwarders, customs brokers, railroads, labor unions, chassis providers, industry associations, and academic institutions—worked in small groups to begin hammering out solutions.

Dye said an industry-led planning effort is the best way to address roadblocks to transportation efficiency. "I oppose a government-driven solution in this area," she said. "Let me be clear that we encourage commercial solutions."

Each innovation team, which includes members from a cross-section of the industry, chose "one piece of actionable supply chain innovation" to focus on, Dye said in the interview.

"We're not asking them to come up with some impossible approach," she said. "They'll be looking for practical changes to the existing system that can take us to a level of efficiency that will be to the country's advantage." She emphasized that the initiative is intended to complement, not replace, local efforts to address congestion at ports around the country.

Among the higher-level issues the teams will address are how to improve service reliability, the flow of goods through the supply chain, and visibility. "Visibility is important because it seeds self-correction in the supply chain," said Dye, who completed a course in supply chain management in preparation for the initiative. "The more information you have, the better you can respond to problems, and that should increase reliability."

The initial meetings were "productive," and the teams will continue working on their chosen projects, with the FMC facilitating and monitoring their communication and progress, Dye said. She expects teams will develop action plans soon, and that some will conduct pilot programs or test their ideas in the field before adopting recommendations.

"I don't think it's going to be a quick fix. But ports, shippers, and others feel a sense of urgency about this," Dye said. "They're all hungry to see some real improvement, and I know they're going to work hard on it."

The FMC is seeking additional participants for the innovation teams. Information about the initiative and an application can be found here.

Toby Gooley is Editor of CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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