YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Like so many other trends — think online shopping — this is one that didn’t begin during the pandemic but appears to have accelerated during it.
Ever since the widening of the Panama Canal, completed in 2016, goods have been a bit more likely to arrive at Pennsylvania warehouses via East Coast ports than via West Coast ones. That’s because ships three times larger than before can travel through the canal.
So why do we still hear so much about problems at West Coast ports causing problems here?
Because until the pandemic, at least, “Forty percent of all the goods coming into the United States came through Los Angeles/Long Beach,” William P. Doyle, executive director of the Port of Baltimore said. “Period. End of story.”
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In other words, things hadn’t changed that much. But anecdotally, at least, that seems to be changing.
Since supply chain issues began surfacing in mid-2020, “We’ve had 23 ad hoc container ships visit the port of Baltimore,” Doyle said. “Ad hoc means ships that were not destined for Baltimore but were diverted to Baltimore because of congestion.”
That won’t likely continue once the supply chain stabilizes. But Doyle says the port has gained permanent new cargo ship routes, such as ones that flow through the Panama Canal and stop in Norfolk before terminating in Baltimore.
Like a lot of people who don’t work in the logistics business, Jesse Mills, the head brewer for Sign of the Horse Brewery in Hanover, didn’t think a lot about the supply chain before the pandemic: He ordered what he needed, and it usually arrived on time.
But imagine being a German-style beer brewer facing a potentially unreliable supply of barley from Germany? “In our minds, we absolutely never dreamed of having a shortage of German grains,” Mills said
Or any beer brewer facing an unreliable supply of aluminum cans? Sure enough, Mills recalls a day when he was down to just 100 cans, from the 5,000 or he might typically have.
Fortunately for Sign of the Horse, the worst issues happened several months ago and have improved. One reason: materials routed through different ports.
Doyle, the port director, said old habits die hard, and changing century-old shipping patterns — materials from Asia arriving in West Coast ports and traveling east by road or rail — takes time. His sales pitch to people in the logistics business?
“We’re getting it faster if you come through the Panama Canal, come into the port of Baltimore, into Pennsylvania, as opposed to sitting anchored off Los Angeles/Long Beach” and then having to work through backlogs at Inland Empire warehouses — that’s the logistics hub east of Los Angeles — which Doyle said stem partly from more severe labor shortages than the ones here.
In addition to the already-widened Panama Canal, Doyle said another infrastructure project closer to home — the Howard Street tunnel project in Baltimore — should also mean more business for the port. That’s because ever since the mid-20th-century advent of containerization — standardized containers that shift before ships and rail cars — only single-stacked containers could travel west from Baltimore to Midwest cities like Chicago. Once the tunnel project is finished — in 2024, if all goes as planned — double-stacked containers will be able to travel that route.