Mostly optimistic notes are being sounded about less congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach during this summer's peak shipping season, but a potential shortage of port truck drivers particularly those willing to work nights could lead to bottlenecks at times.

While hardly a certainty, the prospect of a driver shortage is getting the attention of shippers and port officials because three-quarters of the cargo that's moved in and out of the ports is hauled by trucks.

The drivers are griping about freeway congestion that cuts into their revenues because they are mostly independent owner-operators who are paid by the load, not the hour. In addition, cargo owners and ocean carriers often do not pay fuel surcharges to compensate for higher fuel costs.

"It makes it difficult to be motivated to pick up their cargo," said Bob Curry Jr., president and chief executive of Signal Hill-based California Multimodal Inc.

Some drivers say they are making as little as $65 to $75 for a roundtrip to the downtown rail yards and clear $25,000 to $30,000 a year after working 10- to 12-hour days. Earlier this year, Curry told the publication World Trade, "They could make more hauling dirt."

Shippers downplay the complaints, but with container traffic through May running 26 percent ahead of last year at the two ports before the summer crunch even starts any slowdown in trucking cargo could cascade through the port network and possibly create backups. The general view is that the problems are not likely to approach last year's massive congestion, when scores of vessels were lined up waiting to be unloaded.

"It would be na & #271;ve to say there won't be delays," said Frank Baragona, president of the CMA CGM (America) Inc. vessel line. "But they will not be of the magnitude they were in the past because we are better prepared."

Those preparations include the hiring of more dock workers, the addition of rail cars and implementation of the PierPass program, which will provide for shipping during the off hours.

"You have so many parts of the supply chain that have to work at a very efficient level when you get into a peak," said Jim McKenna, president and chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, during a conference sponsored by the Port of Long Beach. "If any element of the supply chain runs into a problem, then you'll just see a backup into the terminals."

Labor unrest by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, for example, is always a threat if the union believes the vessel lines have not hired enough dockworkers.

Since last summer, the PMA has hired 6,000 part-time casual dockworkers and registered 2,000 existing casuals as unionized longshoremen.

The group also has devised a system that records how many longshoremen are working, what shifts are busiest and at which terminals. The data will be analyzed monthly to make projections for the amount of labor needed.

For the moment, though, the sentiment among dockworkers appears more favorable than with the truckers. Thousands of port drivers have left the industry in the past three years because their incomes have been lowered by the mounting costs of buying and maintaining their rigs, along with purchasing fuel and insurance.

The most recent sore point involves the after-hours program, where drivers so far are not receiving additional compensation. Shippers maintain that the truckers will wind up ahead because less-congested freeways will allow them to carry more cargo on weeknights and Saturdays.

Port terminal operators project that 10 percent to 20 percent of all containers will move during off-peak hours during the first year of the program. As for the truckers, Curry said, "We believe the majority will work at night if there is an incentive."

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