By Lori Aratani
The Washington Post
The nation’s crowded transportation system is already feeling the effect of billions of dollars in automatic federal budget cuts, with long waits at some international airports and signs that cargo may begin stacking up on seaport docks because inspectors are working fewer hours.
Up to 40 percent of the customs booths at airports in New York and Miami were unmanned over the weekend because of cutbacks in overtime for customs officials, resulting in waits of up to three hours for international passengers, Customs and Border Protection officials said. In Long Beach, Calif., the nation’s second-busiest cargo port, customs officials are working 90 minutes less per shift, which could lead to longer processing times for containers.
The slowdowns are among the first tangible effects of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, which began to take effect Friday and will carve $86 billion from domestic and defense programs over the next seven months. On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that the impact had reached the White House, which has canceled public tours starting Saturday because of the sequester.
Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, which handles 40 percent of the nation’s imports, said uncertainty about how the cuts will affect operations makes it difficult to plan.
“We’re not sure where this is going to go,” he said. “There are a lot of people whose jobs depend on this [port].”
Wong said that factory shutdowns tied to New Year’s celebrations in China mean there is a lull in the volume of goods moving through the Long Beach port, which handled $155 billion in cargo in 2011. But operations are expected to pick up in the next few weeks, he said.
Officials at the National Retail Federation said they have been told that the cutbacks could mean delays of up to five days or more in moving containers through ports. That would mean longer waits for retailers expecting spring merchandise as delays ripple through the transportation system.