Top 15 U.S. Marine Ports

By Erika Witzke and Rahil Saeedi.  Mapping courtesy of Natalie Wiseman.

According to the United State Maritime Administration (MARAD) the U.S. marine transportation system, consisting of waterways, ports, and landside intermodal connections, each year contributes more than $649B to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and sustains more than 13 million jobs. And, ports themselves, are the system workhorses; over 3,700 marine terminals contribute over $212B in annual federal, state, and local taxes.

To better understand where marine ports may have the greatest regional impacts, CPCS conducted an analysis using publicly available data for 2010-2015 obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) online Navigation Data Center. Maps have been developed that provide “Top 15” rankings for U.S. marine ports related to twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs, i.e., number of 20-foot containers) and tonnage handled (i.e., non-containerized, bulk cargo).   Below are our observations. When you look at these maps, what do you see?

Top 15 U.S. Container Ports

As the “Top 15 Container Ports in 2015” map shows, the highest number of TEUs pass through ports primarily located on the east and west coasts and near major urban centers. Containerized freight is highly correlated with consumer activity, and these large population centers are often the final destination for these goods.  These ports also have robust intermodal (i.e., road and rail) connections that enable seamless transfer of containers to inland distribution hubs.

To say containerships are “big” is a bit of an understatement. Some of the largest ships have been described as standing taller than the Eiffel Tower on end and having the surface area of four football fields, and continue to be built larger. Unsurprisingly, today’s ships that can hold 21,000+ TEUs require deep channels (e.g., 52-54 feet, depending on the weight of cargo carried), and not all ports are currently equipped to serve the largest vessels.

The following are our select observations on the “Top 15 Container Ports in 2015.”

The Biggest Ports

The Port of Los Angeles (POLA) and Port of Long Beach (POLB) ranked first and second, respectively, for total TEUs handled in 2015. These ports, located adjacent to each other, form the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim and can each accommodate ships with 53-foot draft requirements. In 2015, the POLA handled about 5.5 million TEUs with primary trade partners of China, Japan, and Vietnam, together contributing to about $200 billion in the port’s trade value. POLA imports consumer goods such as furniture, auto parts, and apparel and exports recycling material, scrap metal, waste paper, soybeans and animal feed. In 2015, the POLB handled around 5.2 million TEUs. POLB’s primary trade partners include China, South Korea, and Japan, mainly importing plastics, furniture, and electronics in containers and exporting wastepaper and food products.

The Port of New York and New Jersey (NY/NJ) formed in the early 1920’s and is known as the birthplace of cargo containerization with the sailing of the first container ship to Houston in 1956. In July 2017, the largest vessel to-date at 13,200 TEUs, called at the port due to the recently raised Bayonne Bridge; the bridge elevation facilitates the passage of ships carrying up to 18,000 TEUs. In 2015, the Port of NY/NJ handled 6.37 million TEUs, nearly half coming from China, India, Italy, and Germany. Again, consumer goods such as furniture, beverages, machinery and appliances were the dominant cargo; about 80-percent of which were imports destined for the consumers located less than 100-miles from the port.

East Coast Up-and-Comers

While ports in the Southeast and Gulf have lower volumes than the “biggest ports” noted above, in terms of container traffic they have shown comparatively stronger percentage growth between 2010 and 2015. 

Notably, the Port of Savannah’s Garden City terminal is dedicated to container operations and in 2015 hit a record for the port, handling 3.6 million TEUs, making it the fourth ranked port by TEUs in the U.S. Savannah hit another milestone in 2017, when the terminal handled not only the largest container ship to call on Savannah, but also the largest to call on the U.S. east coast, at nearly 14,500 TEUs. Between 2010 and 2015 the Port of Savannah experienced over 30-percent growth in TEUs.

The Port of Virginia ranked fifth for handling more than 2 million TEUs in 2015. Today the port has 50-foot channels, both inbound and outbound, and is the only East Coast port with Congressional authorization to dredge to 55 feet. Served by two Class I railroads, with 22 Suez-class ship-to-shore cranes port-wide, and an unobstructed 2.5 hour sail to open sea, the port is poised to serve the largest ships on the sea.  As a result, between 2010 and 2015 port TEUs increased by 35-percent and have grown an addition 11-percent between 2015 and 2017.

Other standout ports on the map for their significant TEU growth between 2010 and 2015 include the Port of Charleston, Port Houston, and Port of Tacoma.  However it is noteworthy that in 2015 the Port of Tacoma joined with the Port of Seattle to establish the Northwest Seaport Alliance to collaborate, not compete, in the Pacific Northwest.

Critical Connectivity

Just as containerized freight is critical for consumers throughout the U.S. mainland, likely more important is ensuring that these same types of goods reach populations that are at a distance to the U.S. mainland… where the luxury of other freight options such as long distance truck or rail are not available. 

Honolulu Harbor is ranked eleventh for handling more than 790,000 TEUs in 2015.  The harbor is the hub of “Port Hawaii” hub-and-spoke system; Honolulu Harbor is the primary entry point for incoming cargo from the U.S. mainland and foreign countries, and from Honolulu, cargo is distributed to five other islands served by seven commercial harbor facilities. An estimated 80-percent of all goods consumed in Hawaii are imported, and over 98-percent of the imported goods arrive through the commercial harbor system (as compared to the aviation system). Due to the critical role the ports serve in Hawaii, the State has embarked on a major container terminal modernization program to ensure that businesses and residents continue to have access to the goods they require.

The Port of San Juan handles more than 90-percent of cargo destined to the island, and in 2015 was ranked the fifteenth largest U.S. TEU port handling more than 715,000 TEUs. While the majority of the port’s operations are focused on cruise ships and tourist activities, and a decrease in TEUs between 2010 and 2015, the port has recently served a critical role in relief efforts post-Category 5 Hurricane Maria ensuring fuel, water, food and medical supplies were available to residents. The relief efforts underscored the importance of having a port for the transfer of goods, but also how critical landside connections/services are to the conveyance of goods once they have arrived on dock.

Top 15 U.S. Tonnage Ports

As the “Top 15 Tonnage Ports in 2015” map shows, the largest and growing ports by tonnage paints a very different picture in terms of geography compared to the “Top 15 Container Ports in 2015.” Apart from the Port of NY/NJ, POLA, POLB, and the Port of Virginia, all other top tonnage ports are located along the Gulf of Mexico or the inland waterway system (that connects to the Gulf)

The following are our select observations on the “Top 15 Tonnage Ports in 2015.”

Where the Inland System and the Gulf Meet

The Port of South Louisiana covers 54 miles along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and is the largest port by tonnage in the western hemisphere, handling about 260 million tons of dry-, liquid- and break-bulk cargo in 2015, and average of over 4,500 ships and more than 65,000 barges each year.  This activity is due to the 45-foot channel and strategic location of the port that readily facilitates cargo transfers between trucks, rail, barges, and ships. The port handles about 60-percent of U.S. Midwest grain exports, and is also the terminus for the offshore oil “superport”, where six major oil and gas pipelines converge, conveying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil daily.  Tonnage handled at the Port of South Louisiana grew 10-percent between 2010 and 2015.

The Port of New Orleans ranks fourth in terms of tonnage, serving dry-, liquid- and break-bulk cargoes such as agricultural, petroleum and chemical products.  The port is also a significant container facility for the Gulf region, with a 55-foot channel and connections to six Class I and one Class III railroad. Between 2010 and 2015 the port showed considerable tonnage growth (on the order of over 20-percent) and is carving a niche as a containerized grain facility for cargoes up river. To support this, in 2016, the port received a $1.75 million MARAD grant to improve its container-on-barge and repositioning services between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. More recently the port established an MOU with the St. Louis Regional Freightway to jointly market services between the regions, including the potential for container-on-barge service.

The Ports of Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky is a bi-state port district that covers 226 miles, and over 70 active marine terminals along the Ohio River.  This port district was created in 2015 to better recognize the significant maritime-related cargo activities that occur in the region – and rightly so. In 2015 the district was ranked fourteenth, handling approximately 45 million tons. The commodities handled are diverse and include construction materials (such as limestone, sand and gravel, gypsum) petroleum products, agricultural products (such as grain and fertilizer), and others. And, while coal has been the dominant commodity, representing nearly 60-percent of the district tonnage, that commodity is currently in decline.

Energy/Fuels Distribution Hub

Port Houston, ranked second largest U.S. port in terms of tonnage, handled more than 240 million tons of cargo in 2015. This complex of over 150 public and private terminals is along the 52-mile, 45-foot Houston Ship Channel with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Due to proximity to the Gulf, the port is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S., and the second largest in world, and over 50-percent of its tonnage is crude petroleum, gasoline, natural gas, diesel and fuel oil and other chemicals. Port tonnage grew less than 10-percent between 2010 and 2015, but as oil prices climb over $70 barrel, experts have noted that Houston may get a “shot in the arm.”  Port Houston also ranks sixth in the U.S. in terms of TEUs handled.

The sixth largest port in terms of tonnage in the U.S. is the Port of Corpus Christi. Like Port Houston this deep-water port is mainly known as hub of the energy economy. The port is the gateway for LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) and LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) exports to Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia due to close proximity to the Texas shale basins. The port also handles significant quantities of crude petroleum, gasoline, and diesel and fuel oil. To accommodate this activity the Port of Corpus Christi has 13 public oil docks capable of serving vessels as large as a 160,000 deadweight tonnage tanker (among the largest tankers that can also transit the Suez Canal). Currently the shipping channel is 45-feet, but has recently been authorized to be dredged to 54-feet, positioning the port of continued growth.