After almost two and a half years of slumping imports, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are poised for a slight recovery within the next few months, according to local economists and industry analysts.

Paul Bingham, an Arcadia-based economist for IHS Global Insight, said the ports will likely see three months of consecutive gains in early 2010, thanks to consumer confidence rebounding and more available financing. Above all, last year’s figures in winter were so low that it will be easy to top them.

“Since market conditions didn’t continue to deteriorate, and slowly improved in the latter part of 2009, we think we’ll finally see some positive gains for imports,” Bingham said.

The last time both ports reported a year-over-year increase in imports was in July 2007. Since then, the Port of Long Beach has recorded declines each month, and the Port of Los Angeles made minor gains only in two months, May and August 2008.

“There is a lot of reason to say we’ve finally turned the corner,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “We won’t be seeing the boom years of the mid-2000s, but there is nowhere to go but up at this point.”

Art Wong, spokesman for Port of Long Beach, said shippers are expecting more cargo in the form of manufactured imports, because exports of raw materials had increased. The National Retail Federation, which represents chains that ship through the ports, sees a similar trend.

“We’ve been seeing hints of a turnaround in our past few reports but the boost in imports is starting to look like a clear trend,” Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said in a statement. “If retailers are starting to import more merchandise, it’s because they expect to be able to sell more and that’s a good sign for our industry and the overall economy.”

Truck Suit

In the latest chapter in legal skirmishes over Clean Trucks Program, two environmental groups have filed suit against the Port of Long Beach and the American Trucking Association, claiming a settlement between the two parties is illegal.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club announced last week they filed a lawsuit contending Long Beach’s settlement with the ATA in October violated city and state law because the port didn’t seek public comment and an environmental review.

In its agreement with ATA, Long Beach agreed to allow independent drivers to serve the port, rather than require employee-driver status. The settlement also dropped other proposed restrictions on off-street parking and a requirement that trucking companies show the port their financial records.

“The new agreement gives the ATA authority to oversee future updates to the Clean Trucks Program at the Port of Long Beach,” the NRDC said in a statement. “This deal puts the wolf in charge of the henhouse.”

Long Beach City Attorney Bob Shannon, who handles the port’s legal matters, said the city will defend the settlement.

“We believe the allegations have no merit,” Shannon said. “The settlement was approved by the federal district court and its implementation ordered by the judge.”

The Long Beach settlement is in sharp contrast with the rules adopted by Los Angeles, which will require employee drivers. The ATA has sued over the L.A. rules, and the trial is scheduled for February.

The NRDC lawsuit has not scheduled for a court date yet.

Commission Appointment

Advertising executive and former planning commissioner Thomas Fields has been named to fill the fifth and final opening of the Port of Long Beach’s Board of Harbor Commissioners.

Fields, a Long Beach resident for more than 30 years, is founder of Thomas Fields Associates, a Long Beach-based marketing and advertising agency with clients that include 20th Century Fox, Hyundai Motor Corp. and the Long Beach Housing Development Co. He fills a position left open by former board President James Hankla, who retired in the summer.

Staff reporter Francisco Vara-Orta can be reached at fvara-orta@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 549-5225, ext. 241.

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