Truckers using the state's ultra-modern Seagirt Marine Terminal are experiencing long delays at the gate, the result of start-up problems port officials say they are moving quickly to correct.
Yesterday morning the trucks were backed up in six parallelines, each lane six or seven vehicles deep. Drivers, gathered in small groups alongside their idling trucks, talked among themselves about the problems they have experienced at Seagirt.
"What do you think Gov. [William Donald] Schaefer would say if he spent an hour here watching this?" said driver William Smith. "Do you think he'd be impressed?"
Seagirt's automated truck-processing facilities were supposeto reduce dramatically the "turnaround time" of truckers -- the time it takes truckers to get in the terminal, drop off a load, pick up another and get back on the highway.
Yesterday drivers were saying it was taking them as long as three hours to get in and out of Seagirt. At the nearby Dundalk Marine Terminal, which employs much older technology, turnaround times are on the order of 1 1/2 to 2 hours, said one driver.
"There's got to be a better way," said Steve Kerby, aowner-operator. "This is supposed to be helping the port of Baltimore. I can't see it."
The delays are particularly galling for drivers who own their own trucks, since their ability to make money depends on how many loads they can deliver in a day.
Owner-operator Michael Smallwood was in line yesterday tryinto deliver an empty trailer to Seagirt. His
original plans called for him to leave the trailer at Seagirt, then cross over to South Locust Point to pick up a loaded trailer for delivery to Philadelphia. "I won't make my load for Philly," he lamented. "This will knock me out a day's pay."
Yesterday was his first trip to Seagirt. "This is the first and last time. I won't come here no more," he said.
Port officials attributed the long truck lines yesterday to typical start-up problems, compounded by the surge of cargo arriving at Seagirt in anticipation of one ship today and another Monday. (Yesterday was the deadline, since the truck gate is not open on weekends).
"It's a new operation," said Gene Bailey, who oversees Seagirt on behalf of Maryland International Terminals, a state subsidiary. "These are all what I consider start-up problems. . . . Everybody has or deserves a learning curve period."
Seagirt, which opened for business Sept. 4, is served by two steamship lines, Mediterranean Shipping Co. and Evergreen Marine Corp. State officials, possibly including the governor, were planning to hold a celebration at noon today to mark the arrival of the first Evergreen ship, the Ever Guard, at Seagirt.
The truck gate is staffed by clerks who are members of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association. The problems experienced at Seagirt were not the fault of labor, Mr. Bailey said.
"The labor, as far as I'm concerned, is doing an excellent job. The clerks up here have gone out of their way to help some of the trucks," he said, noting that their productivity has been high.
"We're working on this together," he said.
Mr. Bailey expressed confidence that measures can be taken to correct the problems. "That's our goal. I'm not here to hold trucks up," he said.
By midafternoon, the long lines had been eliminated, said Michael Angelos, who as general manager of Maryland International Terminals is Mr. Bailey's boss.
"There are peak times and slow times," he said, adding that the success of the terminal should not be judged on the basis of long lines at a peak period. He acknowledged, however, that "there are some adjustments we need to make."
Though the truck turnaround times at Seagirt are not yet what Mr. Angelos wants them to be, he said it would be unfair to say the terminal is not working properly. "You don't judge a restaurant in the first two weeks," he argued.
In a sense, part of the gate's problems are the result of its efficiency, he said. For example, a cargo cannot be released if the computer tells the gate clerk a required agreement between lines has expired.
That was often overlooked in the past but has become a frequent occurrence since Seagirt opened, Mr. Angelos said.
"It's too honest," he said of the computer system. "I would have preferred to let them [trucks] go through as sort of a grace period," he said, but the lines have said they cannot legally do so.
As the computer flags such expired agreements, one by one they will be renewed and the problem will diminish, Mr. Angelos said. Similarly, errors in the computer data base will also be found and corrected, and delays from such problems will decline, he said.
Mr. Angelos conceded the validity of many of the truckers' complaints and promised to take quick action to correct them.
For example, several truckers trying to bring empty containers into the terminal said they had to wait in the same lines as truckers with loaded containers, which must be weighed before they are checked in.
"That will be corrected Monday," Mr. Angelos said, when trucks pulling empty trailers will be directed to a separate line to expedite their movement.
Drivers also were upset that bobtails -- trucks without trailers -- also have to go through the same checkout gate as other trucks. Theproblem is most critical during the hour when the ILA clerks break for lunch and the gate closes.
At other terminals in the port, bobtails can still get out of the terminal during the lunch hour. At Seagirt they must wait until the gate reopens after lunch.
Mr. Angelos agreed that something needs to be done about thatsaying, "I think a bobtail should be able to get out."
A number of drivers felt the root cause of many of the delays might have been simple understaffing of the gate.
"Maybe we need to add another TIR clerk," Mr. Angelos said. TIR clerks do the trailer interchange reports completed whenever a truck trailer is checked into or out of a terminal.
Many of the truck drivers were upset at the delays, but a few were willing to give port officials the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
"I can see the good in it. It just ain't clicking," a driver who goes by the name of Bouncer said of the truck gate. "It looks nice; it looks like a space-age building. Nice isn't going to cut it."