After years of feuding over how to relieve the worsening truck gridlock at local seaports, various entities in the cargo-handling chain are on the verge of agreeing to a test program under which gate hours at certain terminals would be extended. If the test proves successful, the extended hours could be instituted at all terminals.

The West Coast Waterfront Coalition a group comprised of importers, major retail chains and shipping lines this summer will meet with union officials to iron out the details for extended hours at one or two terminals at each of the two seaports.

Coalition members said they would likely propose that the gates remain open for seven hours beyond the current 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. hours of operation, beginning early next year.

Should traffic congestion ease at the test terminals as well as on the Long Beach (710) and Harbor (110) freeways during the three-month test period, coalition officials said they would immediately push to expand the program.

"You have so much cargo on the dockyard that when a shipper or truck comes in to pick up his or her shipment to take out, it'll take several hours to move through the port complex," said Alan Atkinson, legislative representative for the coalition, which represents 60 companies. "The idea behind this pilot project is not to develop a system that runs perfectly, but to find out what works and what doesn't work financially and logistically."

The proposal is one of several measures under consideration by trade officials to cut the time it takes to transport the $200 billion in cargo that moves through the two ports annually.

Coalition members also would like to see an appointment system instituted, so truckers would not have to wait in line for their dock assignments. Other congestion-relief measures sought include digital signage on the highways to alert truckers of accidents, and completion of an automated dispatch system.

But critics of the extended-gate-hours proposal doubt that enough efficiencies would be gained to justify the extra operation costs. Dockworkers and truckers would be able to command time-and-a-half and double-time pay from the terminal operators most of which are units of the ocean carriers and from the warehouse and distribution facilities.

"We want parameters on it to make sure it is not a losing proposition," said Dominic Obrigkeit, spokesman for Evergreen America Corp., a ship company. "We want a (lower pay) shift differential instead of time-and-a-half or double time. But labor's going to say, 'That's your problem. If you want these gates open, they're going to be open whether there is cargo or not.' That's not the way it works having the men sitting around doing nothing."

Officials of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union did not return phone calls.

Increasing cargo volume

Despite the current economic downturn, the L.A. port on June 30 completed a record fiscal year for container traffic, with an estimated 5 million cargo containers being handled. Long Beach, which operates on a calendar year, is on track in 2001 to surpass last year's total of 4.6 million containers.

To handle the high volume, many of the large retail chains that operate their own distribution operations already keep their facilities open 24 hours a day.

And some gates remain open for extended hours during the summer peak cargo season. (Container traffic peaks in June through September when retailers receive orders in advance of the Christmas shopping season.)

But it is not enough to ease congestion, which regularly causes dockworkers and truckers to arrive at their assignments as much as an hour late. The situation will only get worse if improvements are not made, according to a new report by the Port of Long Beach, which projects that container truck traffic will more than double at the ports from the current 34,725 trips a day to 82,645 daily trips by 2020.

When truckers and dockworkers are delayed, it creates a snowball effect because containers remain on the docks, preventing ocean carriers from unloading more cargo.

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