The appetite for European imports, such as cars, wine and antiques, is growing in the Western U.S., and that's boosting cargo at the Los Angeles and Long Beach seaports.

The combined value of Western European imports coming through local seaports grew from $5.3 billion in 1999 to $6.1 billion last year, a 15.1 percent increase. The combined 2000 volume is up 41.9 percent from 1998.

"The American consumer has discretionary money to buy these products, so import traffic (growth) is still strong," said Julia Nagano, spokeswoman for the Port of Los Angeles.

The primary types of European cargo being imported to L.A. are beverages (primarily alcoholic), machinery, automobiles, furniture, electrical machinery, ceramics, aircraft parts, sone, plaster, paper and mineral fuels.

Further whetting Western U.S. consumers' appetite for such goods is the strong U.S. dollar, which makes European imports relative bargains for Americans. Another factor: shipping European goods directly to L.A., via the Panama Canal, is far less expensive than shipping them to an East Coast port and then cross-country by rail or truck.

"Commerce is like water it seeks the lowest level. Trade will always find the cheapest route," said Don Wylie, Port of Long Beach's managing director of maritime services.

To illustrate the possible savings, Maersk Sealand charges an average of $2,500 to transport a container by ship across the Atlantic Ocean.

From there, to move the container from the East Coast to the West Coast by ship would cost about $800, while it would cost $2,000 to transport it on a train and $5,000 by truck, Maersk officials said.

"Ocean transportation offers substantial savings vs. any other mode," said John Bodreau, vice president of Maersk's Atlantic services. "There is a tradeoff between the cost of each load and the time element."

Maersk makes more money if its 1,650-container-capacity M-Class ships remain full all the way from Europe to L.A., rather than taking the time and expending the labor to off-load and on-load containers along the way. But direct non-stop shipments are not always feasible because the amount of European cargo coming to Los Angeles is rarely sufficient enough to fill an entire cargo ship to capacity.

"We have the largest container ships in the world right now," said Posey. "We have to do our best to fill them. And if we go (directly) from Rotterdam to Long Beach, we miss the opportunity to load additional cargo on our vessels."

About 85 percent of all import cargo passing through the two local seaports is earmarked for California companies. L.A. importers who need to fill orders on tight deadlines tend to use air, rail or truck transport, rather than ships, despite the higher costs.

European imports can be transported from East Coast ports to Los Angeles in about seven days by train and four days by truck service. Air transport can be accomplished overnight.

Meanwhile, shipping goods to L.A. from the East Coast by sea, via the Panama Canal, takes 20 to 25 days.

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