A group of truck drivers protested outside the Port of Baltimore’s container terminal for the second time in two years Friday morning, saying management must address congestion causing hours-long waits for cargo, costing them and their customers money — and presenting a safety risk to all who work on the docks.
Seagirt Marine Terminal’s booming container volumes, which have rebounded since a drop early in the pandemic, have led to “so many trucks jammed up in this port that if there was a medical emergency, they would not be able to get to us,” said Pamela Miller, the driver who organized the protest.
“They’re not considering our safety in any way,” Miller said. “The port driver does not seem to matter in this system, and yet, without the port drivers, the port would not move.”
Massive vessels transiting the expanded Panama Canal have brought record numbers of truck-sized shipping containers through the terminal, which is managed by Ports America Chesapeake under a 50-year, $1.3 billion deal inked in 2009 with the Maryland Port Administration.
But Miller, 61, who was one of the port’s first female drivers when she began making runs 39 years ago, said staffing and equipment upgrades haven’t kept up. Like many of the port’s truckers, she is independent — hired by trucking firms to move containers in and out of the port to customers. They typically get paid for every load they move, so any delays eat into their bottom line.
“I don’t know if they’re not bringing in the proper amount of labor to service the trucks and the vessels,” Miller said. “I know the vessels are the top priority here, so the port driver is lower on the scale. It’s more of a management issue.”
In a statement, Ports America Chesapeake did not specifically address staffing levels but touted its planned $166 million in terminal upgrades, which will include a new gate configuration, in anticipation of the long-awaited Howard Street Tunnel project that promises to double the port’s container volume.
“Ports America Chesapeake continues to make investments in infrastructure, equipment, technology, and our workforce to maintain our place as one of the most efficient gateways in North America,” the company’s statement said.
Noting the initial drop and subsequent surge in cargo volumes last year, the company said it “would like to recognize all of our transportation workers and port partners during these unprecedented times.”
“It is through the efforts of these essential workers that the Port of Baltimore continues to be a reliable gateway for the State of Maryland and our region,” Ports America Chesapeake said. “We are truly grateful for the sacrifices of our employees and partners in the Port of Baltimore; their health and safety remain our top priority.”
William P. Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said the exponential increase in e-commerce during the pandemic has prompted “very strong container growth” at the port of Baltimore.
”However, while increased business is good for everyone, it can also put a strain on operational efficiencies, and we are working closely with our partner Ports America Chesapeake to make improvements at Seagirt Marine Terminal,” Doyle said in a statement.
He mentioned more gantry cranes as one example and touted the move of an on-dock container repair depot to a new location across Broening Highway, creating space for a new gate complex that will provide “a more fluid container delivery and pick-up experience for truckers.” Amid increased demand and snow-related delays, the terminal has been opening on weekends to move more containers.
”We appreciate the work that our truck drivers do every day and we are excited about the plans we have to improve their Seagirt experience,” he said.
Passing trucks honked their horns, and Miller’s eyes welled with tears as she described her commitment to advocating for her fellow truckers.
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“If I have to go flip burgers at McDonalds, I’ll do it,” she said. “But I will still fight this fight. ... They need to fix what’s going on now.”
Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333, the port’s largest dockworkers union, stopped by the protest in support of the truckers. He agreed Ports America has not properly managed the congestion resulting from the surge in cargo.
Cowan suggested adding more equipment in the field — also part of Ports America’s future plans, along with four new massive container cranes — and more staffing at inspection gates. He said placing an inspector at the new container repair depot would shorten the lines of trucks often backing up on Broening Highway. The truckers also say a new traffic light is needed to make the new depot safer.
“Without the trucking community and the ILA, you have no port,” Cowan said. “Without keeping the cargo moving, and keeping trucking community happy and rolling, it’s tough. Those guys get paid by the load. ... I just wish [management] would work better with the trucking community, with the ILA, to make it a more streamlined approach.”
Kirt Elsey, a 54-year-old driver who lives in East Baltimore and has worked the port for 25 years, said the ILA, Ports America and the truckers previously met monthly to discuss issues. But those meetings have stopped, and the drivers feel unheard, he said.