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."


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