Last summer and fall's congestion of vessels at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is gone, but not entirely forgotten.


L.A. saw a 12.5 percent drop in import container traffic in January from a year earlier, signaling that cargo owners continue to shift some of their freight to alternative destinations.


Long Beach suffered the same congestion problems, but it has the safety net of being the only West Coast port fully capable of handling ships hauling more than 8,000 20-foot-equivalent container units (TEUs). That partially explained why imports rose 25.4 percent during the same period.


As a result, Long Beach is expected to maintain a stronger growth rate than rival L.A. in the coming months.


"Some of the diversions have not moved back yet," said Julia Nagano, spokeswoman for the L.A. port. "(The decision) kind of depends on their client base."


Although the congestion has cleared and terminal operators vow to have enough labor for this year's peak shipping season, retailers remain concerned.


As many as 94 ships were anchored at or off the docks at a given time last summer and fall, which is more than twice the usual number.


"I don't think shippers feel they have a 100 percent guarantee things will be ship-shape this summer," said Ezra Finkin, legislative representative for the Waterfront Coalition, a retailers trade group. "(Delays) put the supply chain under a lot of stress. There are a lot of costs that are incurred for missed deadlines."


Benefactors of the diversions have been Seattle, Oakland and Tacoma. In January, container traffic at those ports increased by 57.4 percent, 32.4 percent and 26 percent respectively.


L.A. still has the edge in overall container traffic, having moved 590,178 TEUs last month, compared with 509,597 in Long Beach.


But it has lagged Long Beach in handling the 8,000-TEU class ships, the world's largest vessels. Long Beach's main channel, which was constructed to accommodate oil tankers, is 76 feet deep. Typically, a 50-foot deep channel is needed to handle cargo ships of that size.


All told, Long Beach has already handled a dozen 8,000-TEU ships. The size of the ships in part made up for an overall drop in the number of container ships that called on both ports during the first two months of this year: 447, down from 479 for the like period last year.


"The container ship count was down overall for the first two months but it didn't affect Long Beach as much," said Dick McKenna, deputy executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which oversees ship traffic control.

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