Extended Hours Will Help Ease Traffic Problems at L.A. Ports


All the players in the maritime supply chain know that a big way to improve the congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and their access freeways is to simply extend hours.

But for years, they have played the blame game largely to avoid absorbing additional overhead that might come with making such a switch.

Truckers, who take a lot of heat for clogging up the highways and belching pollutants into the air, blame terminal operators for not keeping their gates open during off-peak hours.

The terminals claim they would be happy to operate longer hours if shippers would move enough cargo through their gates at night to justify the costs of paying overtime hours to unionized longshoremen.

But only the larger shippers have 24-hour distribution centers, while smaller operations that shut down at night would leave truckers with no place to unload the cargo safely.

After years of haggling, all sides are finally starting to work together not so much out of consideration for their long-suffering neighbors but because of political pressure.

Spurred by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and state Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, legislation will likely gain approval later this year that would penalize shippers through a surcharge for moving cargo during daylight hours. The money collected would be used to supplement terminals that lose money by staying open at night.

"I know it's sort of out there as a threat and a hammer," said Hahn, whose district includes the L.A. port. "Alan is saying if you don't do it right then Sacramento will do it right."

That provides an incentive for the 110-member Regional Goods Movement Efficiency Team a working group of maritime supply chain links formed by Hahn to arrive at some solutions before the Lowenthal bill comes up for a vote. At the very least, the group could devise a reasonable fee structure for shippers.

The language in the bill won't be called a fine, but something like a cargo surcharge or premium fee. Whatever the label, money talks.

Last year, Lowenthal successfully got the terminals to eliminate long lines of trucks idling outside their gates with legislation that approved a $250 fine against terminal operators for every truck forced to wait more than a half hour.

But that was a minor accomplishment in the larger picture of congestion caused by the 155,000 truck trips made to and from both ports each week. And the traffic will not get any lighter: Within a decade, the two container cargo facilities will have to handle twice the more than $200 billion in container traffic they now move annually.

Some big-box retailers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., agreed late last year to move a portion of their cargo at night. Yet, 85 percent of the truck trips are still made during the day. Extended hours at all the terminals could reduce daytime truck traffic by 40 percent.

For now, it seems to be the best option far more realistic than expansion of the Long Beach (710) Freeway, a project that would be hampered by budget cuts and neighborhood opposition in using eminent domain to tear down houses along the route.

The $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor was touted as the solution to some of the traffic problems when it opened in April 2002, and it has helped. But with no direct rail to the distribution centers in and around the Inland Empire, many shippers continue to deliver their goods by truck.

A rail link from the main corridor (which runs 20 miles from the ports to the rail yards east of downtown) to the distribution centers would help, too, but that's years and many millions of dollars away.

In the middle of the puzzle are the local longshoremen, who long have been ambivalent about working at night. Any move to extend hours will need the consent formally or otherwise of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which last year ratified a six-year agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association.

The pact won't necessarily eliminate decades of tension between the militant unions and the multi-billion-dollar steamship companies. The result: periodic work slowdowns.

Even an expanded system to handle today's traffic won't be enough deal with what's projected over the next few years, which is why maritime and transportation officials are struggling to find affordable solutions to the increased traffic a decade from now.

"There will be lots of congestion and lots of conflict," said Stephanie Williams, vice president of the California Trucking Association. "What they are doing today will handle today's congestion problems. But if cargo increases they are going to have to require everyone to be open 24/7."


Proposal: Alleviating truck traffic on Long Beach (710) Freeway to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

Obstacles: Lack of available funding and community opposition to freeway expansion, as well as reluctance of players in maritime supply chain to absorb additional costs of using terminal gates during off-peak hours

Cost: More than $1 billion for freeway improvements and tens of millions more annually for nighttime terminal gates

Time Frame: Decades for freeway expansion and one to three years for extensive use of nighttime terminal gate operations

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