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.
“We’re hoping the impact is going to be minimal, but it’s too tough to say at this time,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF.
But some airports already are feeling the pinch, and customs officials warned Tuesday that delays would worsen in coming weeks.
“Under sequestration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not be able to maintain its required staffing levels at our ports of entry,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday, adding: “In the coming weeks we will see additional impacts as the CBP hiring freeze and furloughs take place. . . . Itineraries should be adjusted to account for unexpected delays.”
In addition to Miami and New York, customs officials said there were delays for international passengers moving through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, although airport officials there said they could not confirm the problems.
Mark Henderson, a spokesman for Miami International Airport, said that on Saturday — the airport’s busiest day for international travel — passengers who would normally wait an hour to clear customs spent up to three hours in line. Customs officials said passengers aboard 51 flights that landed in Miami waited more than two hours, while those on four flights had wait times of more than three hours.