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Freight volumes handled by US container ports fell sharply toward the end of 2008, a decline that has continued into 2009.

The US Department of Transportation releases a new study on US c

Containerised imports declined 15% and exports fell by 21% as US businesses cut inventories, manufacturing and construction activities stalled, and Americans cut back on spending as unemployment rose, home values fell and investment portfolios shrank.

2008 was exceptionally challenging for the nation’s leading container ports. After a steady pace at the beginning of the year, by the end of 2008, containerised freight throughput declined for each of the leading ports in the Pacific/west coast, Atlantic/east coast, and Gulf coast regions.

Total container traffic at all US ports was estimated at 28.2m teu, a 3% drop from the 29m teu in 2007. West coast ports had a 5% decline in container traffic and Gulf coast ports had a 3% decline. East coast ports had a 0.2%, or essentially negligible, increase.

Among the nation’s top 10 leading container ports, seven had declines in their container cargo throughput in 2008. Seattle fell 14%, Long Beach 11% and Los Angeles 6% for example. Only three of the top 10 ports, all on the east coast, handled slightly more container cargo in 2008 than in 2007 – Savannah grew by 3.6%, New York/New Jersey by 1.4% and Norfolk by 1.2%. These east coast ports tend to have a more diversified trade market with Europe, Asia, Latin America, and South America, unlike the west coast ports, which trade almost exclusively with the Asia-Pacific market.

Containerised trade between the US and the rest of the world fell in 2008 because of the combined influence of weak domestic consumer demand which cut import levels, and the global economic slowdown, which cut foreign demand for US exports. During the second half of 2008 as the US financial crisis began to directly impact consumer spending, Americans cut back on their purchase of imported clothes, automobiles, and other consumer merchandise, such as toys and flat-panel televisions.

In addition, as the domestic financial crisis deepened and the global recession widened, overseas trading partners’ demand for US goods started to tumble, further weakening the maritime container market. As a result, declines occurred in US demand for container transportation by ocean vessels, cargo-handling activity at the container ports, and the volume of intermodal freight moved to and from the ports by truck and rail.

The declines in maritime container traffic mirrored the slide in overall U.S. international merchandise exports and imports transported by all modes of transportation in 2007 and 2008 and followed the trend in the national economy as a whole.