Truck stop Port gate system off to a rocky start, but normalcy appears to be returning

Trucker Lori McLaren goes through the gate access, which includes entering the code for the container she’s bringing in, using the State Ports Authority’s new “Advanced Gate System” at its Wando Welch Terminal on Friday.

Traffic backups that brought the Wando Welch Terminal — and much of the Charleston area — to a standstill a little more than a week ago have put a spotlight on the complex interactions between humans and machines that can make the maritime hub one of the nation’s most productive or reduce it to gridlock.

While most of the issues have been resolved — Wando Welch is back to averaging 4,200 cargo transactions per day and the amount of time it takes truckers to move through the terminal is declining — emotions, for some, still are raw.

“Relationships right now are strained,” Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, said last week as the State Ports Authority continued to ramp up its new, automated gate system at the agency’s busiest terminal.

“Nobody wants to criticize, but we all know things have to get fixed,” Todd said.

Those who were on the front lines of Wando Welch’s shutdown point to several causes:

Some of the agents who operate third-party trucking firms didn’t inform their independent drivers of the new system and the need to have a “gate code” to enter the terminal. About 80 percent of the truckers who visit Wando Welch are independent drivers.

International Longshoremen’s Association checkers, those union workers who check cargo coming in and out of the terminal, weren’t trained on the system until a day or two before it went live. SPA officials, however, chafe at the notion that training was inadequate.

The gate system, called Go!Port, experienced a series of software failures, printer server errors and problems scanning license plates as vehicles entered the facility, resulting in hours of downtime, re-routed trucks and a logjam on Interstate 526.

“There are a lot of moving parts out there, so it doesn’t take long for one issue to really build into a big problem,” said Pat Barber, president and CEO of North Charleston-based Superior Transportation, which sends about 25 trucks each week to Wando Welch.

“You can only force so much through the funnel,” Barber said.

The same type of automated gate system is used at most major U.S. ports, and there have been start-up problems elsewhere.

“It’s the reality of life with any big system implementation — no matter the testing, the simulation and the thought that goes into it, there will be start-up issues,” said Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO.

But when the bugs are worked out and the system operates properly, it can cut the amount of time it takes a trucker to check in at Wando Welch by half — to about three minutes.

Newsome expects the new system will let Wando Welch handle an average of 5,000 cargo transactions per day just a few weeks from now. That’s important because bigger ships carrying more cargo will be calling on the terminal now that the Panama Canal’s expansion is complete. A pair of ships that used to call each week on the SPA’s smaller — and less busy — North Charleston Terminal, for example, have switched to Wando Welch while increasing their number of containers from 5,000 to 8,500 per vessel.

“We expected there would be issues,” Newsome said of the new system. “Unfortunately, we do don’t have a lot of buffer traffic-wise. As long as we’re able to keep the hardware and the technology stable, then we are gaining on the productivity of this system.”

At its worst on June 23, the traffic snarls caused Mount Pleasant police to temporarily shut down Long Point Road — the only route into and out of the terminal — to all commercial traffic.

“We kind of had to shut down the port,” Mayor Linda Page said that day.

Around that time, some truckers wanted Todd’s association to request that Gov. Nikki Haley declare a man-made state of emergency, thereby suspending regulations that limit the number of hours truckers can be on the road.

“Once those guys are on duty, the clock is ticking,” Todd said. “If they’re sitting still, they’re burning up time and money.”

The idea didn’t get far. The trucking association was worried that businesses might pressure drivers to get their freight delivered regardless of the consequences. And there was a safety issue.

“We didn’t want anxious, irritated and fatigued drivers trying to push themselves to make up for lost time,” Todd said.

While much of the public’s anger and frustration was directed at the long lines of motionless trucks clogging Interstate 526, Todd said the truckers had no role in creating — or fixing — the problem.

“Carriers — and drivers — are caught, as usual, in the middle between the port’s predicament, other maritime stakeholders, citizen and law enforcement actions and customers’ demands, with limited capacity to adapt or work,” Todd wrote in a June 24 email to his association’s board of directors.

Todd said the truckers were the only ones who lost money when the port couldn’t move its cargo.

“The drivers will probably eat those losses,” he said. “This is lost income and lost wages. Some of them will maybe lose business or customers because of it.”

Tony Blackburn, owner and operator of America1, told The Journal of Commerce that his company suspended operations at Wando Welch and won’t return until it’s certain the problems have been resolved.

“We think it will be at least two months before we’ll try it again,” he told the journal.

Newsome said he understands why truckers are upset.

“They should be frustrated,” he said. “They’ve come to expect good service from us and they didn’t get it.”

Vince Marino is one of the owners of Charleston Gate Co., a partnership between two stevedore companies and a maintenance vendor that provides the unionized workers who move truckers through the terminal. He says the ILA checkers and mechanics were properly trained and prepared for the new system.

“We’ve been talking about this system for the better part of six months,” Marino said. “We’ve got a small army of men and women who are just waiting to get these guys (truckers) in and out as fast as possible. But if there are software issues, there’s nothing anyone can do. You just have to wait until they fix it.

Marino added that some truckers were reluctant to change their gate routine, causing backups as they learned the new system on the fly.

“I know most of these drivers and they are a good group of guys, but nobody likes change,” he said.

Marino admits some ILA members were concerned about how the new system might affect their jobs. To date, however, no ILA worker has been replaced by the new technology. Instead of inspecting trucks and checking their paperwork on the terminal, the ILA’s workers now perform those jobs remotely — in a modernized, air-conditioned office — through the use of cameras and other technology.

“If I’m a clerk or a checker, I’d rather have a roof over my head like they do now instead of standing out there in the elements with a noisy truck lumbering through and all the dirt, grime and exhaust that goes with it,” Barber said. “I think those guys are in a much safer environment now.”

John Alvanos, president of the ILA’s local checkers union, did not respond to requests for comments last week.

Todd, in his email to board members, said the system’s technology problems were “compounded by human shortcomings — from apparently less-than-well-trained (and) motivated SPA (and) ILA workers to some contractor truck drivers ... that may have been equally unprepared.”

In an interview, Todd was more guarded.

“My members down there are convinced there’s either been some type of training deficiency or some reservations about how this system is going to impact jobs going forward,” he said of the ILA workers.

It’s an accusation that gets under Newsome’s skin.

“That is significantly unfair,” the port CEO said. “These people have a lot of experience. They have worked these gates for years and they know these gates better than we do. It didn’t take a long time to train them. It’s not a hard system to learn. This was not caused by a lack of training. That’s a complete red herring.”

Newsome was scheduled to travel to Panama to watch the inaugural voyage of a ship through the expanded canal on the weekend after the new gate system was implemented. But as the problems mounted, Newsome canceled the trip. He and other SPA executives wound up spending most of their days — and nights — at Wando Welch trying to troubleshoot the problems.

“We worked very hard to offer extended gate hours,” to compensate for truckers’ long wait times at the gate, Newsome said.

Turn times — the amount of time it takes a trucker to enter the gate, drop off or pick up a container and exit — typically average an hour or less at Wando Welch. During the first week of the new gate system, Newsome said turn times were averaging 2½ hours. The Journal of Commerce reported the waits were as long as six hours.

Those turn time were nearly back to normal by Friday afternoon.

And the number of transactions – that is, a cargo container being picked up or dropped off — is back to historic averages. There were 16,264 transactions during the first week of the new gate system, while 20,770 transactions were conducted last week.

“The repetitive nature of the new system is going to take hold, and that will give us some additional efficiencies in the gate moves,” said Barbara Melvin, the SPA’s senior vice president for operations and terminals.

The ports authority will debut the new gate system at its North Charleston terminal beginning in August. Most truckers who visit Wando Welch also visit North Charleston, so the SPA is hoping the same problems won’t repeat themselves when the system is expanded to the smaller terminal.

“As people use the system more, they become used to its nuances,” Newsome said. “We just need to work every day to improve. The system will meet our objectives. I’m confident of that.”

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_