SoCal Port Terminals to Operate Nights, Weekends
Move aimed at easing congestion on region's crowded freeways
LOS ANGELES - 10/22/03 - The port complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the economic colossus of Southern California's economy, is about to change its ways, wrote business columinist James Flanigan in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times.
Rather than inflict 47,000 trucks a day on the 710 [Long Beach Freeway] and other freeways, terminals at the ports will open their gates to trucking at night and on weekends. The aim is to ease congestion - and to stave off the threat of stern regulation.
According to Flanigan,'this shift in port policy is a case of the public sector pushing the private sector - shippers, truckers and terminal operators - to do what is in the best interests of their businesses to begin with.
"Either the ports change on their own or face an uprising by the people that will put a cap on their growth," says Janice Hahn, who represents the harbor area on the Los Angeles City Council.
That growth has been spectacular. In the last decade, the twin ports have tripled the number of containers coming over their docks. The value of material moving through the ports - now the largest import and export center in the United States - has soared to $231 billion from $122 billion.
As China has become the largest shipper and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest receiver of goods through the ports, international trade has become the leading source of employment in the Los Angeles area. In all, more than half a million jobs - from stevedoring to lawyering, from trucking to accounting - are tied to the ports. And economists project that the containers, dollars and jobs all will more than double by 2020.
But practices have been as slow to turn as a supertanker far out at sea.
Although the terminals have long unloaded ships during night and "hoot owl" shifts lasting from 6 pm to 8 am, trucks could haul the cargo away only from 8 am to 5 pm Those bankers hours made it unavoidable that tractor-trailers would crowd the freeways during the morning and evening commuter rush, increasing the number of accidents and the concentration of diesel exhaust in the air.
Complaints were inevitable, writes Flanigan.
State Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) fired the first shot last year by pushing for a law that fines terminal operators and truckers whenever their rigs idle more than 30 minutes in harbor areas. Terminals that stay open 70 hours or more a week are exempt from the penalties. The regulation has helped, Lowenthal says, "but we have to keep the pressure on."
Indeed, until very recently business operations at the ports were terribly uneven. Many shipping companies and stevedoring firms fought against keeping their gates open and full longshore crews employed through the night. They maintained that truck traffic wouldn't materialize after 5 pm. And besides, they added, warehouses in the region weren't open at night, even if the trucks did show up.
For their part, the port authorities in Los Angeles and Long Beach took the stance that they were "only landlords," unable to tell their tenants, the shipping companies, how to run their businesses.
Then a major accident this month on the 710 involving a tractor-trailer and a compact car killed six people and injured another six. US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who represents the harbor areas as part of his district, was incensed. Port operators blamed the accident on the condition of the 710.
Rohrabacher says, "I blame the port operators for incompetence."
Port officials suggested that he drive the 710. "So I did," Rohrabacher recalls - at 2 am.
What he found was a freeway virtually vacant of cars and trucks. When he told port officials about his trip, "They said, 'Oh, it's always empty at that hour,' " Rohrabacher recounts.
"That's right," he replied. "Think about it."
And think about it they did. The result: Within the next year, all 13 terminals at the ports are set to undertake a pilot program in which they will stay open two nights a week or perhaps operate on Saturdays and Sundays, when they now are closed.
Suddenly, the recognition that expanded working hours will mean good business seems to be dawning on everybody. Truckers look forward to being able to complete more trips per day - and pocket more money along the way. The International Longshore Workers Union foresees more work and overtime pay.
Changes at the ports will set off other developments as well. Additional warehouse facilities may have to be constructed to receive goods at all hours. The Alameda Corridor, built at a cost of $2.5 billion in the 1990s to speed freight from the ports to rail yards near downtown Los Angeles, may finally operate near capacity. Partly because of limited work hours on the docks, the corridor operates today at only 35% capacity.
Of course, a great degree of coordination will be required for all these things to happen at once. "The gears have to mesh," says Larry Keller, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.
But there's a good chance they will.
As Rohrabacher notes: "If you look at things in a static way, it always seems that change will cost you money. But this change will be dynamic. It will open up possibilities."
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