Almost every time we get on an interstate highway or major road, we see the most visible cogs in the U.S. distribution system — tractor-trailer trucks. And anyone who’s ever been stuck for several minutes waiting for a long freight train to pass can appreciate how much freight moves on U.S. railroads. But most Americans would be astounded at the amount of freight that moves through a few dozen ports along the East and West coasts and some of the country’s major waterways. The numbers are staggering: the equivalent of 28.74 million containers measuring 20 feet long by 8 feet wide by 8.5 feet high passed through the 30 busiest U.S. ports in 2009 (the latest year for which statistics are available). If those containers were stacked end to end, they’d stretch some 111,000 miles, nearly half the distance to the moon. Here’s a look at the 10 busiest U.S. ports based on container traffic, according to the 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States.
10. Charleston, South Carolina
The Port of Charleston handles roughly $72 million in cargo every day — that’s more than $26 billion each year — with service to more than 140 countries. The city’s port facilities have been an economic force in the region since colonial America. In fact, Charleston’s success as a port made it the largest city south of Philadelphia in the late 18th century.
9. Tacoma, Washington
Unlike the other ports on this list that were developed by cities, this port in effect spawned the city around it. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad selected the area as its western terminus, noting the deep waters of Commencement Bay in South Puget Sound made it a perfect port. A few years later, the town of Tacoma incorporated. A decision in the early 20th century to invest $2.5 million to make the port a public entity has paid off; according to the Port of Tacoma, it accounts for some 43,000 local jobs and 113,000 jobs in Washington state.
8. Seattle, Washington
Like the neighboring city of Tacoma, Seattle took a gamble in the early 20th century, investing millions to create a public port corporation. The seaport, which celebrated its centennial in 2011, now directly accounts for more than 21,000 jobs; an estimated 135,000 jobs in Washington state result from the handling of containerized cargo at the port terminals.
7. Houston, Texas
This port, which began operation in 1914, is absolutely vital to the U.S. economy. Packed into a 25-mile stretch of the Houston Ship Channel is the second largest concentration of petrochemical complexes in the world. The port is actually the busiest in the United States based on foreign tonnage, and second busiest based on total tonnage handled, and is the main entry point for many consumer products from Europe, such as Volkswagens. Look for the Port of Houston to assume an even bigger role in shipping in 2014, when a $5 billion project to widen the Panama Canal is completed.
6. Norfolk, Virginia
The Norfolk waterfront is best known as home to the largest naval complex in the world, but port terminals in Norfolk and neighboring Newport News and Portsmouth handle a large amount of cargo, including more than 1.4 million containers in 2009. A Virginia Port Authority study from 2008 estimated the Port of Virginia supported more than 35,000 jobs.
5. Oakland, California
The Port of Oakland opened to container traffic in 1962, and at one time in the late 1960s was the second-busiest port in the world based on container tonnage. Oakland lost much of that business in subsequent years to better facilities further south in Long Beach and Los Angeles, but city leaders fought back, securing almost $250 million in federal funding to dredge Oakland’s harbor and make it more attractive for shippers, in a 12-year project finished in 2009.
4. Savannah, Georgia
This seaport, stretching 18 miles along the Savannah River from the Atlantic Ocean, has been one of the fastest growing ports in the world over the past decade. The port is gearing up for expansion, as the state of Georgia has set aside almost $200 million in funding to deepen Savannah Harbor. Savannah’s proximity to Atlanta and other major cities across the mid-South has earned its port the nickname “America’s Retail Port,” as major corporations such as WalMart, Lowe’s, IKEA and The Home Depot have built major import distribution centers there.
3. New York City
The busiest seaport on the Eastern Seaboard welcomed almost 5,000 cargo vessels in 2010, with an estimated cargo value of some $175 billion. That figure includes almost 5.3 million containers, roughly 50 percent more than the previous year. As with most other ports on this list, the Port of New York/New Jersey faces challenges in dealing with the larger cargo vessels that are now in use. The civil engineers who designed these ports never envisioned a day when some cargo ships could carry more than 12,000 cargo containers. The Port Authority of New York/New Jersey has earmarked several billion dollars to dredge deeper shipping channels, and to rebuild the 80-year old Bayonne Bridge; several ships in recent years have struck the bridge because of its low clearance, and some captains often wait for low tide in order to take their ship under the structure.
2. Long Beach, California
This port actually outranks the adjacent Port of Los Angeles in terms of total tonnage (72.5 million annual tons of freight versus 58.4 million tons), but L.A. gets the nod on this list based on container traffic. The port has enjoyed plenty of favorable publicity in recent years. Cargo News Asia named the Port of Long Beach the Best Seaport in North America for 2012, the 15th time in 17 years it has won that honor. Also, the facility’s Green Port initiative, adopted in 2005, has earned kudos from environmentalists.
1. Los Angeles, California
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 helped transform this once sleepy port into one of the world’s busiest ports. In World War II, Los Angeles Harbor played a critical role in American shipbuilding. Container traffic made an inauspicious debut at the Port of Los Angeles in 1958, with the shipment of 20 containers; in 2006, the port set a U.S. container volume record, handling the equivalent of 8.5 million containers.