INTERVIEW: Sea Worthy

Stepped-up security and increased container volume has Larry Keller anxious for the Alameda Corridor

By DAVID GREENBERG
Staff Reporter

Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Larry Keller has seen his responsibilities change in the last six months. When he assumed the post in 1996, his primary focus had been to ensure the efficient movement of more than $100 billion worth of goods in and out of the nation's busiest port. Today, his concern goes beyond logistics, as he focuses increasingly on security and the pollution that's emitted from ever-larger container ships.

With the nation mired in an economic slump, the port last year handled a record 5.1 million 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers, becoming the first U.S. port ever to reach the 5 million TEU mark. The April 15 opening of the Alameda Corridor, which connects the port with transcontinental rail yards near downtown Los Angeles, will prove to be one of the most important developments for the port since its formation in 1907.

After a stint in the Navy, Keller's first job was with Maersk Inc. (before it purchased Sealand). His final seven years with the company were as regional director of the Pacific Southwest territory. He joined the port in April 1996 as chief operating officer, a newly created senior management position. Following the resignation of Ezunial Burts as executive director in 1997, Mayor Richard Riordan appointed Keller interim executive director. Later that year, Keller was appointed to the post permanently.



Question: What's your secret to maintaining a thriving port during a recession?

Answer: It's a combination of things. One: a lot of the (shipping) lines that are doing business in the Port of Los Angeles are part of a consortium, which means they consolidate loads on their ships and their terminals. So you might have four lines that are part of a single consortium and they're co-loading on each other's ships, using a single terminal instead of four. The second part is that we have really, really good rail connections. They are going to be better.

Ship owners want to make as few calls as possible. So we know that a fair amount of discretionary cargo (headed east of the Rocky Mountains) that we got last year, for instance, would have normally gone to Seattle or Tacoma.



Q: With regards to port security, what has changed since Sept. 11?

A: Everything. We're the largest cruise port on the West Coast. The cruise lines saw bookings drop by 60 percent the week after (the attacks.) Since that time, due to the measures that they've taken and we've taken, we've seen their bookings grow to about 80 percent of capacity. Part of the reason for that is immediately, working with the lines, we put in (weapons screening) magnetometers. We've gone out and purchased dogs that check the luggage before it goes on the ships.

Together with the Coast Guard we developed the Sea Marshall Program here, which boards each one of the ships when they are on the way back in about 12 miles out. We escort the ship all the way in with a Coast Guard cutter to make sure there are no (unwanted) advances by small boats or other craft. Once the ship is in, we've got port police or Coast Guard cutters 24-7 on the waterside. We dive to the ships' bottoms to make sure there are no approaches on that side.



Q: What about the container ships?

A: I think people are probably the most likely targets, given what we saw in New York. On container ships and tankers and other cargo ships, we've had a really good sharing of information from the federal government. The Coast Guard, Customs, (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the FBI are all talking to each other in a way that they didn't prior to 9-11. The Coast Guard is now requiring a manifest of both crew and cargo 96 hours in advance of the arrival of the ships. If there is anything that is considered out of the norm, the ship is asked to anchor out. The Coast Guard and INS together go on the ship and check out any crewmembers that might turn up on a watch list and check out any cargo that might be suspicious. If there's the slightest belief that something is wrong, the ships are not allowed in.



Q: How often has that happened?

A: (The Coast Guard) hasn't shared that number with us but they assure us that it's happened. Most of this, as I understand it, has been crew persons. Names pop up on the crew manifest that the INS is taking a look.



Q: How are you dealing with projections that container traffic at the port will double in the next 10 years?

A: Some people have said and I don't necessarily agree with it that we're going to run out of land. If you took the land mass of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach and overlaid Singapore and Hong Kong (the world's two busiest ports), you'd have lots of land left over on our part. Those ports are each moving 15 million to 20 million containers a year. Almost all of our containers, when they come off a ship, are put on a truck chassis. That obviously takes up a lot more yard space. (The Asian ports) use a stack model. When the imports come off a ship, they are actually stacked five high in the yard and systems manage how they're delivered to the ships, to the rail and the trucks. If we could move into the type of operations that they have, we've got lots of room to keep growing.



Q: Do you think the Alameda Corridor will be able to handle the container traffic increase and alleviate traffic congestion along the Harbor and Long Beach Freeways?

A: It's a really significant addition. Right now, we're moving about 45 trains a day in and out over the three rail lines. The corridor is probably good for 100 to 110 trains. If you're looking at a doubling (container traffic) scenario, there's you're doubling. The other part of the Alameda Corridor is a four- to six-lane truckway along Alameda Street all the way to the 405.

Q: Will there be any logistics problems with the corridor just opening up?

A: We don't think so. The corridor was built for multiple reasons. We're looking at eliminating 200 at-grade crossings throughout those neighborhoods. These are (currently) mile-and-a-half long trains traveling 5 to 10 miles an hour going through the neighborhoods, cutting those neighborhoods essentially in half. Trains will be able to travel 40 miles an hour in a straight line instead of these circuitous loops. The estimate right now is that it takes the railroads about four hours to take a train up these other routes and back again. With the corridor, they figure it is a 40-minute trip in either direction. We're going to have to wait and see, but I think this means we can probably get a train to Chicago or New York at least a half a day faster.



Q: How will the port and shipping companies adhere to the Board of Harbor Commissioners' mandate for no-net-increase in air pollution when container traffic could double in the next 10 years?

A: For the past few years, we've been studying advanced technologies here and we've been experimenting with some of them gaseous fuels for yard tractors, with alternative fuels for our own fleet as mandated by the (Air Quality Management District.) One of the things we've promoted is rail on dock. So instead of the trucks coming one truck per container to take to the downtown rail yards, we're now loading them actually on the docks. At one of our terminals, that eliminated 365,000 truck trips in a year. If you multiply that times six more yards we'll have on line later this year, that's a big way of removing the impacts. We think it is doable. Easy? Probably not. Cheap? Probably not.



Q: Many San Pedro residents have complained that the port is not a good neighbor. This takes on new meaning with the possibility of San Pedro, Wilmington and Harbor City seceding from L.A. What are you doing to rectify the situation?

A: I think we're a pretty good neighbor overall. Besides the (260,000) jobs that we (directly or indirectly) create, the benefits we provided last year in support of the neighborhoods and some of the public studies we've done in support of community outreach here total about $14 million. If the issue is environmental, we were the first port in California to embrace and assist in placing "clean (diesel) engines" in the tug boats, which run almost 24 hours a day. Forty-percent of our own fleet of vehicles are now running on alternative fuels mostly gaseous or pure electric.



Q: Environmentalists claim the air quality above the ports is the worst in L.A. County.

A: AQMD doesn't support that. AQMD actually in the early '90s gave us a pretty good rating and in recent reports they also showed that the area is (reasonably clean.)

INTERVIEW: Larry Keller
Title: Executive Director
Organization: Port of Los Angeles
Born: Vallejo, Calif., 1945
Education: Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from San Francisco State University, 1971
Career Turning Point: Switching to the shipping industry after realizing there was little career potential in anthropology
Most Admired Person: His father
Personal: Married with three children and three grandchildren

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.