An official website of the United States government.

We've made some changes to EPA.gov. If the information you are looking for is not here, you may be able to find it on the EPA Web Archive or the January 19, 2017 Web Snapshot.

Ports Primer: 3.1 Port Operations

Link to Home Page of Ports Primer for Communities   Link to Section 2, The Role of Ports   Link to Section 3, How Ports Work   Link to Section 4, Port-Community Relations   Link to Section 5.0, Land Use and Transportation   Link to Section 6, Local and Regional Economy   Link to Section 7, Environmental Impacts   Link to Section 8, Tools and Resources   Link to Section 9, Appendix   Link to Glossary for Ports Primer   Link to Endnotes for Ports Primer
On this page:

Ports HelpPort The term generally refers to places alongside navigable water (e.g., oceans, rivers, or lakes) with facilities for the loading and unloading of passengers or cargo from ships, ferries, and other commercial vessels. These facilities may be operated by different entities including state or local public port authorities, private terminal operators, and federal agencies. Activities associated with ports include operation of vessels, cargo handling equipment, locomotives, trucks, vehicles, and storage and warehousing facilities related to the transportation of cargo or passengers as well as the development and maintenance of supporting infrastructure (also see inland ports).can serve a range of vesselsHelpvesselA ship or large boat. including recreational watercraft, barges, ferries, and ocean-going cargoHelpcargoThe freight (goods, products) carried by a ship, barge, train, truck or plane. and passenger ships.1 The United States has over 150 deep-draftHelpdraftThe depth of a loaded vessel in the water taken from the level of the waterline to the lowest point of the hull of the vessel; depth of water, or distance between the bottom of the ship and waterline. ports, which serve ocean-going ships.2

The way ports operate and how they are governed varies and may include state and local public entities, such as port authoritiesHelpPort Agency or Port AuthorityA government entity. A port authority may own facilities in one or more ports, and a port authority’s domain may include both seaports and airports. It may be difficult to tell visually where the control of a port authority ends. For example, port authorities do not control private terminals (except in as much as landlord ports can impose lease-based controls on private terminal tenants), military operations and industrial facilities located in or around port facilities. less Definition 2: Autonomous (independent) port authority: a self-sustaining, self-governing public body. Definition 3: Semi-autonomous (semi-independent) port authority: a public body subject to certain state controls. Definition 4: Bi-state or regional port authorities: a public body created by agreement between two or more states. Definition 5: Port authorities with limited agency or power: a public body limited to certain actions such as bonding. Definition 6: Divisions of state, county or municipal government: a government department. Definition 7: Independent port or navigation districts: entities that function as "special purpose" political subdivisions of a state with defined geographic boundaries over which they have authority., port navigation districts and municipal port departments. The structure of a local port has implications for how near-port communities relate to decision makers and participate in decision-making processes.

Port vs. Port Authority3

PortsHelpPort The term generally refers to places alongside navigable water (e.g., oceans, rivers, or lakes) with facilities for the loading and unloading of passengers or cargo from ships, ferries, and other commercial vessels. These facilities may be operated by different entities including state or local public port authorities, private terminal operators, and federal agencies. Activities associated with ports include operation of vessels, cargo handling equipment, locomotives, trucks, vehicles, and storage and warehousing facilities related to the transportation of cargo or passengers as well as the development and maintenance of supporting infrastructure (also see inland ports). are generally places alongside navigable water (e.g., oceans, rivers, or lakes) with facilities for the loading and unloading of passengers or cargo from ships, ferries, and other commercial vessels. These facilities may be operated by different entities including state or local public port authorities, private terminal operators, and federal agencies. Activities associated with ports include operation of vessels, cargo handling equipment, locomotives, trucks, vehicles, and storage and warehousing facilities related to the transportation of cargo or passengers as well as the development and maintenance of supporting infrastructure (also see Inland Port HelpInland Port Term sometimes used to describe a port that is not located on a coast (e.g. Great Lakes or Mississippi River ports) or an area with large intermodal freight facilities that is not near navigable water (e.g., landlocked intermodal rail and truck facilities).).

A port authority is a government entity. A port authority may own facilities in one or more ports, and a port authority’s domain may include both seaports and airports.

For example, port authorities do not control private terminals, military operations or industrial facilities located in or around port facilities. However, some private tenants in ports may be subject to controls written into lease agreements.4

Opportunities are encouraged for port authorities to take a leadership role in ensuring that the entire port complex makes environmental improvements and engages constructively with local communities.

Top of Page

The Port Authority’s Role in Operations5

The role of the port authority in operations can vary from port to port; however, ports often fall into one of the following two categories:

  • Operational Port: The port authority builds the wharves, owns the cranes and cargo-handling equipment, and hires the labor to move cargo in the sheds and yards. A stevedore, or labor management company, hires dockworkers to lift cargo between the ship and the dock, where the port’s laborers pick it up and bring it to the storage site.
  • Landlord Port: The port authority owns the wharves, which it then rents or leases to a terminal operator (usually a stevedoring company). The operator invests in cargo-handling equipment (forklifts, cranes, etc.), hires dockworkers to operate such lift machinery and negotiates contracts with ocean carriers to handle the unloading and loading of ship cargoes.

Port authorities can sometimes be both a landlord port and an operational port like the Port of Houston Authority.

Top of Page

Operational Ports vs. Landlord Ports

The following ports are Operational PortsHelpOperating PortA port where the port authority builds the wharves, owns the cranes and cargo-handling equipment, and hires the labor to move cargo in the sheds and yards. A stevedore hires longshore laborers to lift cargo between the ship and the dock, where the port’s laborers pick it up and bring it to the storage site. (See landlord port.):

  • Port of Savannah
  • Port of Virginia
  • Port of Charleston
  • Port of Jacksonville
  • Port of Wilmington
  • Port of Boston
  • Port of Mobile
  • Port of Panama City

The following ports are Landlord PortsHelpLandlord Port At a landlord port, the port authority owns the wharves, which it then rents or leases to a terminal operator (usually a stevedoring company). The operator invests in cargo-handling equipment (forklifts, cranes, etc.), hires longshore laborers to operate such lift machinery and negotiates contracts with ocean carriers (steamship services) to handle the unloading and loading of ship cargoes.:HelpLandlord Port At a landlord port, the port authority owns the wharves, which it then rents or leases to a terminal operator (usually a stevedoring company). The operator invests in cargo-handling equipment (forklifts, cranes, etc.), hires longshore laborers to operate such lift machinery and negotiates contracts with ocean carriers (steamship services) to handle the unloading and loading of ship cargoes.
Landlord PortAt a landlord port, the port authority owns the wharves, which it then rents or leases to a terminal operator (usually a stevedoring company). The operator invests in cargo-handling equipment (forklifts, cranes, etc.), hires longshore laborers to operate such lift machinery and negotiates contracts with ocean carriers (steamship services) to handle the unloading and loading of ship cargoes:

  • Port of Los Angeles
  • Port of Long Beach
  • Port of New York and New Jersey
  • Port of Oakland
  • Port of Seattle
  • Port of Tacoma
  • Port of Miami
  • Port Everglades
  • Port of Baltimore
  • Port of New Orleans
  • Port of Anchorage
  • Port of Philadelphia
  • Port of Portland
  • Port of San Diego
  • Port of Freeport
  • Port of Tampa
  • Port of Houston Authority

The following ports are Operational and Landlord Ports:

  • Port of Houston Authority​

Top of Page

Types of Cargo6

Seaports may be equipped to handle one or more kinds of cargo, including:

Top of Page

Select to go forward or back.