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How Philadelphia’s port tackled supply chain backups and got containers moving again

Packer Avenue Marine Terminal delayed several ships from entering earlier this year. It also opened gates for extended hours, and made use of additional land, all to keep cargo moving.

Stacked shipping containers at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, part of the Port of Philadelphia, Dec. 7, 2021.
Stacked shipping containers at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, part of the Port of Philadelphia, Dec. 7, 2021.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The Holt family has worked in transportation since the 1920s, and their business took an unusual action in September: suspending ships from entering Packer Avenue Marine Terminal for three days, effectively closing the biggest part of Philadelphia’s port to vessels.

“It was like pulling teeth, having to say, ‘alright, this is the best for the next week, the next two weeks, the next three weeks,’ ” recalled Eric Holt, chief commercial officer of Holt Logistics Corp. and fourth-generation in the company. Its independently managed affiliate, Greenwich Terminals, runs PhilaPort’s main container terminal under a lease with the state agency.

While images of container ships waiting days to reach port in Southern California have become symbols of supply chain woes, PhilaPort officials say there’s been no such backup outside Philly.

But by summer, thousands of containers were clogging Packer Avenue, requiring new solutions to keep things moving at the port — as it’s projected to handle a record 740,571 container units this year, a 15% increase from 2020.

“We had dry cargo sitting on our port that wasn’t moving for months and this is all the things consumers are buying online, trying to get home delivery for,” Holt said. Retailers, for instance, turned on production for homebound consumers spending money to renovate, but those companies “didn’t have the support here locally to kind of digest it.”

Suspending berth operations in early September – which delayed the arrival of three ships by one to two days – was “unique in my almost 40 years of being in this business,” said company president Leo Holt.

Yet it allowed workers at the terminal to focus on moving nonessential containers off the dock. When 4,000 to 5,000 containers are sitting at Packer, it indicates that cargo has been dwelling at the port longer than usual.

Last summer, Packer saw double that number piling up.

Turnaround times for truck drivers were stretching to four or five hours, compared to the usual 40 to 50 minutes.

That was an alarm bell. “The most important thing is the truck driver experience,” Leo Holt said.

“During August we had about 10,000 containers sitting there at any given time at Packer Avenue,” Eric Holt said. “It’s now down under 3,000.”

During the pandemic, “ports have to be agile and they have to roll up their sleeves and think out of the box,” said Sean Mahoney, PhilaPort’s director of marketing. Container volumes at the port have grown steadily over the past decade.

At the same time, “we didn’t foresee a spike and surge we saw in containers over the summer,” Mahoney said. “We needed to address the spike, we needed to act quickly, and we did.”

PhilaPort helped secure 33 acres of land to help with container storage.

Mahoney also credited Holt with supplying equipment to a nearby rail yard, at Holt’s own expense, “to move higher volumes of containers quickly to the Midwest.”

The terminal also started keeping extended hours on nights and weekends for truck drivers to collect cargo.

Holt hosted five job fairs this year, too, and is still looking to fill positions ranging from forklift operator and warehouse supervisor, to administrative roles, Eric Holt said.

Of course so many elements of the supply chain begin and end elsewhere.

In the case of one large electronics company, for example, “their inland distribution centers either didn’t have labor, or were so full that they could not take more containers,” Leo Holt said. “And the knock-on effect of that is ... that people end up using the containers or trailers as storage units, which does not work in a fluid supply chain.”

At Packer Avenue, dry cargo dwell times -- the length of time cargo waits to be picked up -- rose from a 2019 average of four or four-and-a-half days, to over 12 days earlier this year.

Refrigerated containers went from sitting at the port 3.3 days on average in 2019, to six days by last summer, Eric Holt said.

If you think of the supply chain as a garden hose, Leo Holt said, “it creates these bubbles in the hose that are difficult to digest.”

More fruit and forest products

Philadelphia’s port specializes in perishables and produce — what Leo Holt calls “high-value, time-sensitive goods.” That includes fresh and frozen meat, dairy products, and fruit products in particular.

In 2020, refrigerated cargo such as bananas, pineapples, citrus fruits, and grapes increased 21% — to over 4.87 million metric tons — at terminals along the Delaware River.

Forest products — like boxboard used for packing online purchases and eucalyptus pulp from Brazil that goes into paper towels — comprise another big category, and rose 14% last year at PhilaPort.

Port facilities handled 928,000 tons worth of forest product break-bulk — cargo that’s not shipped in a container — plus an estimated 20,000 units of containerized products.

Officials at PhilaPort see attracting more container business as the key to future growth, aiming for north of 1 million container units a year.

Gov. Tom Wolf dedicated more than $300 million to port investment starting in 2016, and annual container volume has increased 60% since then, Mahoney said.

PhilaPort will also be applying to access funds in the $17 billion allotment for ports in the new bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed.

With so much attention now on the supply chain “people understand how important ports are to the local economies,” Mahoney said. “Both Republicans and Democrats have been universally in support of what we’re doing.”