When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named a new port director in December, just four months after overhauling the city's harbor commission, he proclaimed that the conflicting aims of keeping an economic engine growing and cleaning up the worst polluting area in the L.A. basin could be resolved.
But in a sign of how daunting the problem has become, business groups and shippers, as well as local residents and environmentalists, are waging protracted battles on two fronts.
The overburdened infrastructure around the ports requires tens of billions of dollars in additional investment over the next 10 to 20 years. Meanwhile, the environmental cost of three decades of unbridled growth has sparked a bitter backlash from those who want the pollution reduced and eventually eliminated.
The central question: Can the ports and surrounding areas physically accommodate additional growth while at the same time reduce pollution?
Background Creating Economic Engines
Battles surrounding L.A. area ports are not new. At the end of the 19th century, a clash took place over the siting of a port that would be able to take advantage of the huge growth in trade that the building of the Panama Canal was expected to bring.
The powerful Southern Pacific Railroad heir and land baron Henry Huntington backed a plan to build a port off the Santa Monica coast, while city leaders and business interests, led by Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis, backed a plan to turn a shallow and overburdened harbor by the sleepy town of San Pedro into a major deepwater port.
The battle reached all the way to the floor of the U.S. Senate, which sided with the San Pedro plan. Federal funds helped dredge the harbor, and Los Angeles annexed land between the downtown area and San Pedro so it could control the flow of goods from the port to the central city area. By 1930, more than 23 million tons of goods flowed through the port.
Meanwhile, Long Beach officials, bolstered by the Signal Hill oil gusher, created a rival port alongside L.A.'s. Over the next several decades, the two ports engaged in a rivalry as each sought to outdo the other.
Then two developments helped transform the ports into the behemoths that they have now become: the introduction of containerized cargo in the 1960s and the rise of Asian trade in the 1970s and 1980s.
To stave off the inevitable congestion, leaders of Los Angeles and Long Beach proposed building the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile grade-separated rail line that would move cargo from the ports to distribution warehouses near downtown L.A. After 17 years of funding difficulties and court battles with cities along the route, the $2.2 billion rail corridor opened in 2002.
Meanwhile, environmental activists and local residents sought to curtail pollution at the ports. But the complaints fell on deaf ears until 2000. That's when the South Coast Air Quality Management District released a detailed air pollution study that confirmed what residents had long suspected: the area around the ports contained the highest risk levels in the L.A. basin for adverse health impacts from toxic chemicals and diesel exhaust.
Since then, other reports have detailed the environmental hazards. Most recently, a state Air Resources Board study found that the 50,000 people living closest to the ports face an elevated risk of cancer and that pollution from the ports is the primary factor in 29 premature deaths each year.
Backers of continued growth note that cargo moving through the ports has generated more than 250,000 direct jobs (including dockworkers, truckers and train operators) and 300,000 indirect jobs (including warehouse operators and distributors) for the region.
Business leaders, shippers and port officials all say that the ports can keep growing and still become more environmentally responsible. They point to several initiatives undertaken in recent years to reduce both congestion and pollution.
Plans to expand gate hours were fast-tracked, culminating in the PierPass program. Shippers are charged peak-hour fees to encourage them to move cargo unloading to evening and Saturday hours. Despite initial grumbling from truckers who didn't want to work the overnight shift, as well as residents who didn't like trucks in their neighborhoods during nighttime hours, the program has relieved congestion.
But PierPass came too late for some shippers, who diverted their cargo to other West Coast ports like Seattle-Tacoma; these ports all experienced record increases in container traffic.
To prevent others from leaving for other ports, many in the industry believe that substantial infrastructure improvements must be made. They have their eye on some of the billions of dollars in bond monies now being proposed in Sacramento for goods movement.
On the environmental side, former L.A. Mayor James Hahn, under pressure from a pending lawsuit from environmentalists and community activists, reached agreements with China Shipping Holding Co. and others to switch from high-polluting shipboard diesel engines while docked to shore-side electric power hookups, also known as "cold ironing."
This became the centerpiece of a new policy from Hahn of "no net increase" in pollution from the ports. Villaraigosa is trying to go one better; his new Harbor Commission President, David Freeman, has pledged to reduce emissions below 2001 levels by encouraging truckers and train operators to shift to less-polluting fuels.
Meanwhile, the Port of Long Beach earlier this year adopted a "Green Port" policy that requires electric power hookups for ships, low-sulfur fuels to be used for some ships and terminal equipment, and reduced idling times for trucks.
Pollution Must Stop
Community and environmental groups say these steps don't go far enough. They want immediate reductions in pollution and have threatened to sue to block any future port expansions that don't reduce pollution.
"The ports have grown to the size they are now because they've externalized the impacts on the citizens who live nearby," said Noel Park, president of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition. "But this can't continue."
While acknowledging that some growth in container traffic is inevitable, their strategy is to extract environmental concessions out of the ports for any planned expansions.
They point to the lawsuit they filed in the late 1990s against the Port of Los Angeles for its approval of a new terminal for China Shipping. "When it looked like that lawsuit was going to prevail, that's when the port settled," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who is drafting legislation requiring trucks at the ports to convert to cleaner-burning fuels.
But there is skepticism that the changes being contemplated will be enough.
"Look, just adding a lane or two on the Long Beach Freeway isn't going to cut it. In a couple of years, it will be just as congested again with trucks, if not worse," said Roger Holman, past president of the Coolidge Triangle Homeowners Association near the Port of Long Beach. "To really make a lasting impact, you need electrification of rail to handle most of the container traffic and you need new inland ports and distribution centers to take the cargo sorting away from the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach. The current patterns of growth at the ports simply cannot continue."
For the first time in several years, a consensus on the needs of the ports is forming on two fronts: more funding for infrastructure improvements and a commitment to incorporate cleaner technologies into goods-movement operations.
At least $1 billion, if not more, is likely to be earmarked for the ports and related infrastructure from a multibillion dollar bond now under discussion in Sacramento. The money would be used for upgrading bridges, highways and rail lines around the ports as well as for rail grade separations in the Inland Empire.
On the environmental side, officials in both Long Beach and Los Angeles have ambitious plans to speed up the introduction of less-polluting technologies into and around the ports, from more landside power hookups for ships to cleaner burning fuels for trucks and port-related equipment.
The biggest obstacle on both fronts is money. Whatever amount is earmarked from a statewide infrastructure bond will be a small fraction of the tens of billions of dollars that's ultimately needed. Lowenthal and others back the imposition of a steep container fee as much as $30 per container to raise the revenue necessary to fund both infrastructure and environmental improvements. A $30 fee would generate $420 million a year at current cargo levels.
Shippers and groups representing other industries are likely to oppose a container fee that high, on the grounds that it would be passed on to businesses throughout the region. They would rather see the region's elected officials make a more concerted effort to get billions of dollars more in funding from the federal government.
"Shippers shouldn't arbitrarily bear all the costs of this," said Fran Inman, a senior vice president at Majestic Realty Corp. and the new chair of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee. "Since so many goods that come through our ports go to the rest of the country, this is really a national issue. We need to be much more aggressive in getting funds from Washington."
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