The move to extend gate hours at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has gotten off to a stronger-than-expected start as roughly one-fifth of all cargo loading has shifted to nighttime and Saturday hours.

But the experimental program has spawned new problems, including nighttime delays in loading containers at many terminals, increased early-morning truck noise on local freeways and a scramble at trucking firms to find enough drivers to take the night shift.

"They've exceeded their expectations in moving cargo off-peak, but the price of success is this congestion that we never used to see before at night," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who was instrumental in setting up the extended gate hours.

The ability of terminal operators and truckers to address these growing pains will be a crucial barometer on whether the nation's busiest port complex can handle the explosive growth in cargo from China and other Asian countries. Should the problems persist, there are fears that some of the growth in container shipments will shift to other West Coast ports.

The intent of the new extended gate-hours program, called PierPass, was to alleviate mounting congestion and avoid a repeat of last summer, when dozens of container ships were lined up outside the ports waiting to unload their cargo. At some of the older terminals, it can take an hour or more to locate and then load a specific container onto a truck.

Under the PierPass program that debuted on July 23, the 12 terminals at the two ports have extended their operating hours by adding an evening shift from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and a day shift on Saturday. As a financial inducement for shippers to move their offloading operations, an $80 fee has been imposed on every 40-foot container loaded onto or unloaded from ships during daytime hours.

Numerous computer glitches and other logistical problems marred the first week. Once those problems were resolved, the nighttime congestion persisted at several of the terminals. Logistics firms reported delays of one to three hours at some of the terminals.

"I was in one of our trucks last week at one of the terminals and the through-times were not any faster than before the program started," said Richard Coyle, president of Paramount-based Devine Intermodal. "It was still taking an hour or more to load the trucks."

Coyle attributed the problems to higher-than-expected volumes of cargo being shifted to off-peak hours. During the first week of August, 35,093 "gate moves" of containers occurred during off-peak hours, 30 percent of the total container moves. With about 10 percent of cargo being moved during off-peak hours before the program began, that amounts to a shift of about 20 percent of cargo to off-peak hours.


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