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Big ports are congested, so smaller ports are ramping up their operations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A third of the nation's imports normally flow through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Now those ports are clogged. Containers are stacking up. Erika Beras from our Planet Money team visited a nearby port that is stepping up to relieve the congestion, and she found a small problem with huge implications.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: The Port of Hueneme in Southern California is what's called a niche port. It brings in tons of cargo, mostly cars and bananas - billions of bananas - so many that the town has an annual banana festival. The port has hummed along for decades, doing just enough business. But this past year, calls are coming in daily.

KRISTIN DECAS: We're getting one or two, three inquiries about, can we come through your port and bring our cargo there? - because we want to get out of the congestion.

BERAS: Kristin Decas runs this port, which is so much smaller than the Port of Los Angeles. That port has 3,200 acres of land. Hueneme has 120. When they get those calls, Kristin tells them, yes, they are very close to those bigger ports. Yes, there's space and labor. And no, shippers can't just offload cargo here - not unless they have every other piece of the supply chain figured out. And the one that most often stumps those callers is chassis.

A chassis is like a flatbed with wheels. Once a ship docks, a container is pulled off by a crane and clipped into a chassis waiting below. Then it's like a trailer and gets attached to a truck, then driven off a short distance to a warehouse where the container's unloaded, and the chassis makes its way back to the port to bring another container to the warehouse.

DECAS: So without a chassis, you can't move a container box. So you're just going to see containers stack, stack, stack up and just wait for equipment to come get it.

BERAS: That's part of the congestion at other ports. So the Port of Hueneme doesn't have its own chassis. What it's doing is extending contracts with existing clients, like Del Monte and Chiquita. They're leasing out space on their ships to bring in stuff that they don't normally carry, like furniture, clothes, toys, musical instruments, alongside the bananas and mangos and pineapples.

Ramon Rios is the Del Monte operations manager at the port.

RAMON RIOS: So we're basically chartering our vessels to bring their cargo. We're like Uber for them.

BERAS: They can do that because they have their own chassis they can use to cart away the containers of couches that hitched a ride on those banana boats. It depends on the port, but chassis are generally owned by the shipping carriers that bring stuff into a port. And, yes, supply chain issues - they, too, are having trouble buying them.

RIOS: The backup to buying chassis right now - I mean, it's like standing in line on Black Friday, you know, waiting for doors to open. Right now, there's a bunch of customers requesting to buy chassis. And it's just - it's hard to get them.

BERAS: At pretty much all the ports, there is a full-on chassis shortage, which you can't tell just by looking around. While I was at the Port of Hueneme, I spent the day with Tony Ryan, head harbormaster. And even though there's a shortage, there seemed to be an awful lot of chassis just parked at the port.

But I'm looking right now, and I see, like, I'd say - is this - would you say, like, 100 of them?

TONY RYAN: Oh, I'd say about 200.

BERAS: Yeah.

RYAN: Yeah, 200 chassis - some are dedicated to their companies. And some are - I don't want to say hoarded, but some are - they just, you know, don't want to share them, obviously.

BERAS: Carriers keep chassis sitting at port terminals until they need them. But even without their own chassis and not taking on new clients at the Port of Hueneme, this port is still busier than it's ever been. Imports are up more than 100% this year.

Erika Beras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.