As the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach continue to be deluged with the worst vessel congestion in two years, plans to extend terminal gate hours next month have been delayed until March.

Terminal operators made the decision to delay the PierPass program because they said there wasn't enough longshore labor to even fill their needs during daytime hours.

Critics of the delay said there is ample labor for the pilot portion of the program, which entails opening the gates on Saturdays for a month.

The decision to push back extended hours comes after six months of planning and promises by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators, to meet the Nov. 6 start-up date. Those talks were instrumental in convincing state Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, to pull a bill in August that would have made nighttime gate use mandatory beginning Jan. 1, 2005.

"They have pulled a bait-and-switch on us," L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said of the terminal operators. "(The PMA) said they needed to solve the congestion problem before they extended the gates. I think it's just the opposite."

Representatives of the ports' 13 terminals formed the West Coast Marine Terminal Operators Agreement in June to plan and implement the PierPass program, and received an exemption of anti-trust laws from the Federal Maritime Commission so they could discuss and set the program's fees.

Under PierPass, terminals now open weekdays would be open Saturdays during the day for the first month with a weeknight shift added each month until the traffic congestion returns to normal levels.

Companies whose cargo went through the ports would pay a $40 surcharge for every 40-foot-long container moved during weekdays and get a reimbursement of the same amount for each one moved during off-peak or weekend hours.

The funding generated from daytime moves would offset the cost of operating off-peak gates, which terminals estimate would run them $32 million annually per additional shift each.

The goal is to shift as much as 50 percent of the cargo moved to off-peak hours, up from the current 5 percent to 10 percent.

"(PierPass) is primarily being delayed due to the difficulties with the labor shortages," said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group representing cargo vessel lines and terminal operators. "They need to address the labor shortage in order to fill the existing gates prior to expanding additional gate hours."

Casting blame

The ports would have benefited from a November start-up date, because of the massive backlog of vessels docked at or anchored just off shore.

On Oct. 11, shortly after the decision to delay extended gates was made, Hahn tried to gather the interested parties in the hope of persuading the PMA and PMSA to stick to their original plan. In attendance were Lowenthal, ILWU Local 13 President Dave Arian and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association Vice President Tom Teofilo (who resigned from his post days later). PMA officials did not show up, prompting Hahn to call another meeting for Oct. 27.

PMA officials did not return calls.

"The public is going to be disappointed," Hahn said. "We were looking for some relief of traffic congestion. They need to get back to the drawing table and figure out how this is going to work sooner rather than later."

Lowenthal's bill passed the Assembly May 25 by a 44-36 vote and the Senate's Transportation Committee June 30 by a 9-2 margin. It was sitting in the Senate Appropriations Committee when Lowenthal pulled it on Aug. 12.

"He said earlier in the year if they could come up with a viable plan, he would drop the bill," said Josh Tooker, legislative director for Lowenthal. "He's disappointed it's not happening."

The bill also called for the formation of a Congestion Management District, which would have been staffed by representatives from the two ports, L.A. and Long Beach city councils, the ILWU, the port trucking industry and a community group.

Another part of the bill called for unspecified surcharges on importers and exporters that would have been tacked onto cargo moved during weekdays. The proceeds would have been allocated by the district to programs to reduce traffic on the Long Beach (710) Freeway.

Last year, attempts failed to implement a pilot program by the Waterfront Coalition, a trade group representing retailers.

The reasons were underscored in a survey of more than 1,000 shippers conducted by the group, which found the terminals they use would only get about 200 gate moves per night, or 40 percent of the action they need to make off-peak gates financially feasible.

Meanwhile, longshoremen make basic rates of $28.68 per hour for the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift and $38.24 per hour for the 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, while clerks make $41.32 and $55.09 per hour for the same shifts regardless of how much cargo is moving through.

"(Off-peak labor) makes it more expensive," said Berge. "The terminals need to have an agreement with the retailers to cover some of the costs, to (create an) incentive for the cargo to move in off-peak hours."

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