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.

PierPass administrators had projected that shifting to off-peak hours would ramp up to the 20 percent level during the first year; instead, the level was reached in two weeks.

These figures were welcomed by L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the communities around the Port of Los Angeles and has pushed for extended gate hours. "For years, all we've heard was how this couldn't be done. So it's gratifying to see these results," she said.

One benefit of the shift toward off-peak hours has been a noticeable lessening of daytime truck traffic on the Long Beach (710) Freeway, the main truck conduit from the ports.

Coyle said major retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Mattel Inc. have been even more aggressive in moving to off-peak hours than expected. "These companies don't want to pay the fee at all, so they're telling us they want all their cargo offloaded during off-peak hours," Coyle said.

Trucker gripes
Staffing has been a problem, one that could grow worse in the next few weeks when annual crunch of holiday shipments reaches its peak. Some terminals don't have enough workers to run the gates, and several trucking companies don't have enough drivers to take night shifts.

PierPass administrators, speaking on behalf of the terminal operators, say the staffing difficulties are only temporary as terminal workers get accustomed to the extended hours. "Look, we're making a huge change in the culture of these businesses," said Bruce Wargo, president and chief executive of PierPass.

But representatives from both the California Trucking Association and the local chapter of the Teamsters International union say that several of the 12 terminals have outmoded equipment and have not hired enough people to deal with nighttime traffic.

"This is a management issue; the terminals are understaffed," said Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the California Trucking Association.

Williams did note that two of the terminals Maersk-Sealand and Hanjin are operating smoothly under the program, with virtually no delays.

"All the truckers I hear from want to load and unload at these terminals because there's zero waiting time," she said. "If these terminals can do it, so can the others."

Maersk-Sealand, which operates at the newly-opened Pier 400 complex at the Port of Los Angeles, and Hanjin, which recently upgraded its Port of Long Beach facility, have large acreage and the latest in wheeled chassis to speed the unloading of containers. Most of the other terminals are considerably smaller and none has wheeled chassis, meaning that the containers have to be placed manually onto chassis the truckers bring in.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters' union has its own issues with the PierPass program. They say truckers work the less-desirable nighttime shift without getting any extra compensation. "None of this new $80 per container fee is going to the truck drivers," said Miguel Lopez, port representative for the Teamsters union.

What's more, he said, the nighttime delays of two to three hours at most of the terminals are being compounded by the skyrocketing price of diesel fuel, which has topped $3 a gallon. "The truck drivers can't afford to be sitting there, hour after hour, wasting fuel," he said.

Noise concerns
Truckers aren't the only ones complaining. A few local homeowner groups are voicing their concerns over higher nighttime noise levels, especially from trucks taking the Long Beach Freeway.

"Some of our homes are within 500 feet of that freeway and now they have to contend with those noisy trucks nearly all night long," said Roger Holman, president of the Coolidge Triangle Homeowners Association in north Long Beach.

Holman said that local homeowners have been opposed to the PierPass program from the beginning, saying that no provision was ever made to minimize the increase in nighttime noise levels.

In addition, he said, the nearly round-the-clock idling of trucks at the terminals compound the region's already significant air pollution problems. Federal and regional air quality officials have designated the ports as the single biggest polluting entity in the Los Angeles region.

"The ports need to suspend the PierPass program until these problems are adequately addressed," Holman wrote in a letter to local elected officials.

Lowenthal said that after he's convinced the program is working satisfactorily, he plans to introduce legislation to impose an additional container fee, this one to raise money to fund needed infrastructure improvements around the ports.

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