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The Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) is looking to develop another port in Luzon—particularly in Bataan, to solve the current difficulty in returning empty containers.

“We’re looking for space. We’re looking for logistical solutions to relocate or to accommodate empty containers,” PPA general manager Atty. Jay Daniel Santiago told PortCalls in a recent chance interview.

The return of empty containers has been a longstanding issue that has especially escalated this year due to a confluence of events: bad weather that has delayed some vessels and led to berthing issues; high yard utilization at container terminals due to the peak season; limited capacity of outside depots; and trade imbalance (three laden containers coming in against one laden container for export, leading to more empty containers in the country at any given time). All of these have caused a knock-on effect in the supply chain.

Santiago noted a real need to develop additional facilities because using sweeper vessels to evacuate empty containers is just a temporary solution.

The country, he pointed out, will continue to accumulate empty containers due to the trade imbalance, with more import containers coming in than export containers being repositioned. “It (import-export imbalance) will catch up with us,” Santiago added.

It may be recalled that Department of Transportation (DOTr) OIC Undersecretary for Maritime Fernando Juan Perez told a Lower House Committee on Transportation hearing that one government solution to the issue is to have shipping lines transfer their empty containers via barge from Manila North Harbor to Subic Bay, for pickup by sweeper vessels or regular calling ships.

Santiago said one area PPA is “seriously considering” is Bataan, where the authority already has existing port facilities in Orion and Lamao.

He noted PPA may have to retrofit the terminal it chooses to adapt to market requirements. Initially, the port will accommodate barges bringing in empty containers, but Santiago said the terminal is intended as a multi-use facility and will also handle laden boxes.

PPA itself will develop and operate the facility, unless “there are some operational developments which will require or which will make it more practicable to be bidded out to a private operator,” Santiago explained.

He said their plan has been discussed with the Department of Public Works and Highways and the local government in the area, especially concerning the needed expansion of access roads to and from the chosen port.

Santiago further said that developing the proposed facility will take time, but that the project could start by 2019.

He noted the planned facility will be similar to the recently inaugurated Cavite Gateway Terminal, a roll-on/roll-off barge terminal in Tanza, Cavite, one of the government’s suggested solutions to the empty container problem.

Asked if having to barge and truck containers would translate to double handling and higher costs, Santiago said based on PPA’s computation, total handling cost would still be lower since the distance for trucking is shorter.

He noted the planned port facility will not compete with nearby Subic port since Subic has its own clientele.

Barging instead of trucking containers bound for northern Luzon from Manila to Bataan can also help alleviate road traffic, Santiago noted. – Roumina Pablo

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