The Port of Long Beach, locked in fierce competition with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles for dominance in the booming cargo-handling business, has just made its already ambitious expansion plan even grander.

The port now plans to reconfigure most of its existing facilities into five mega-terminals of more than 300 acres each. Building out the mega-terminals will cost an estimated $1.9 billion over the next 10 years, port officials said.

"The work will be done in phases over the next decade, but the bulk of it we expect to do over the next four to five years," said Geraldine Knatz, the port's managing director of development.

That aggressive timetable is viewed as critical, with local cargo volume expected to triple over the next 20 years, and the Port of L.A. eager to snatch away Long Beach tenants. Just last year, L.A. lured Maersk Sealand, the world's largest shipping line, away from Long Beach to its 484-acre Pier 400 terminal. That move is expected to bring $2 billion in revenues to the L.A. port over the next 25 years, and Long Beach can ill afford to see that scenario repeated.

"It's a widespread development to build ever-larger terminals," said Sarah Anne Towrey, vice president with Jordan Woodman Dobson, an Oakland-based architectural and engineering firm that specializes in terminal design. "The volume of container traffic is growing so fast that the new terminals are full before they finish building them."

The Long Beach plan, which will be funded by a combination of port revenues and bonds, calls for adding 200 acres of land through a number of small landfill projects and consolidating all but a few of the existing terminals.

Indeed, land is becoming a major concern for the operators who lease the terminals from the port. With the volume of imports exploding, the operators need to find ways to keep the containers from piling up at the terminals and to move them through to destinations as quickly as possible.

One of the easiest ways to keep cargo traffic moving is to immediately put containers on truck chassis after they are unloaded from ships, rather than stacking them along the dock. That way, truckers can get to their containers relatively easily and drive off quickly rather than having to wait for cranes to pluck them from stacks and load them on a truck chassis.

However, lining up those chassis for pickup requires a huge amount of space. Hence, the need for mega-terminals.

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