After implementing extended gate hours to ease congestion, officials at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are turning their attention to a new generation of large ships that could overwhelm them with cargo.

The ships, which haul 8,000 or more 20-foot equivalent containers, require fewer trips to deliver the same amount of goods carried by ships that average 4,000 to 5,000 TEUs. That makes them less expensive for shipping companies, which plan to bring 150 of them into service over the next two to three years half dedicated to trans-Pacific trade.

The ships are certain to spike the increase in cargo volume rolling through the local port complex. Smaller ports on the West Coast have little chance of handling the loads. So port officials especially in L.A., where the ships are not yet calling are racing to get ready.

"They are coming online faster than the infrastructure of North America is geared to handle them," said Jon DeCesare, principal of Long Beach-based World Class Logistics Inc.

Last summer, the Port of Long Beach became the first port in the nation to begin scheduled stops for the next-generation vessels. The port takes two to four of the large ships a week, a number expected to rise to six or seven in the near future.

In L.A., a $222 million dredging project that will allow the port to accept the ships in its inner channel is still two years away from completion. The port is also upgrading its facilities, spending tens of millions of dollars to expand and reinforce wharfs so that they can support more cargo and absorb the impact of the huge vessels bumping into them.

On-dock rail facilities are also being enhanced to help move cargo out of the terminals quicker. Tenants have installed 12 mega-cranes capable of reaching across 23 containers to load and unload cargo on the far side of a ship. More cranes are on order, at a cost of at least $7 million each.

Port officials are also encouraging tenants to reconfigure their terminals to double their capacity to handle 10,000 to 20,000 20-foot containers at a time so the big ships don't cause slowdowns.

"Land is at a premium here and we're not looking at any major build-outs," said Arley Baker, spokesman for the L.A. port. "We want to be proactive in looking at their needs in the years ahead."

The two local ports will handle the bulk of the 75 or so 8,000-TEU ships that get placed into service between the West Coast and Asia over the next several years. That's good news for trucking, distribution and warehousing companies that thrive off the volume coming through L.A. and Long Beach. But the added business will present some logistical challenges. Each ship will carry loads as much as 50 percent larger than earlier-generation vessels.

The larger ships first began to dock regularly last summer, with the arrival of China Shipping Container Line's CSCL Asia in Long Beach. (The first 8,000-TEU ship docked once in Long Beach in July 2003.)

The larger ships are also capable of docking at the Port of L.A.'s Maersk-Sealand terminal on the outer portion of the San Pedro Harbor, although none has done so yet. The dredging project will allow the ships to use the main channel.

Seattle and Oakland's channels are deep enough to handle the ships, but their terminals aren't big enough to accept as many as L.A. and Long Beach. Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C., the only other ports with sufficient depth, have even less terminal space.

Unloading 8,000-TEU ships takes three to four days, double the time it takes for a 4,000-to-5,000 TEU ship. So far there have been no delays in Long Beach, but in time, there will be more truck trips on already congested freeways near the ports, more stress on storage areas on the docks and, potentially, backups in the water.

"The bottlenecks outside of the ports will eventually become bottlenecks in the ports if cargo can't get out," said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group for vessel lines.

The ports recently implemented an extended-hours schedule for off-peak deliveries; this is expected to move 10 percent to 20 percent of all port truck trips to nights or weekends. Also, thousands of dockworkers were hired to help with the booming volume of cargo coming in from Asia. Cargo owners also are being forced to move their goods quickly out of the ports or pay a demurrage fee.

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