The Port of Los Angeles is getting a big Christmas present this year – the biggest container ship ever to visit a North American seaport.

On Dec. 26, French shipping line CMA CGM Group’s 18,000-container ship Benjamin Franklin will call at the port on its maiden voyage.

It’s a sign that shipping lines have forgiven the port for the strangling congestion issues it experienced a year ago along with the neighboring Port of Long Beach, a situation that backlogged dozens of ships off the San Pedro coast.

“We believe this will be a proof of concept that the Port of Los Angeles can manage such ships and a conveyance process in a way that meets and exceeds expectations,” said port Executive Director Gene Seroka.

To bring the ship to port, Seroka said he and other port officials, together with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, discussed the logistics of managing the massive ship with a group of stakeholders including Jacques Saadé, the shipping line’s founder, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of dockworkers, railroad and trucking companies, cargo brokers and freight forwarders. The talks also included representatives of APM Terminals because the ship will be docking at one of its facilities. The firm simultaneously unloaded three container ships, each capable of carrying 13,000 cargo containers, earlier this year.

The ship is scheduled to leave L.A. on Dec. 30.

Massive vessels are becoming more common, said Bobby Olvera, Jr., president of ILWU Local 13. To handle such volume in the future, the union is advocating for 24-hour terminal operations.

“I think to handle the amount of cargo we’re receiving and to provide the efficiency and logistics that we need, we have to look at keeping the ports open, if not 24-7, then (at least) Monday through Friday, 24 hours a day,” Olvera said.

Twenty-four-hour operation would require the full logistics chain, including terminal operators, trucking companies, railroad lines and warehouse operators, to keep that schedule, he said.

While that might not happen immediately, Seroka said he wouldn’t rule it out in the future if it helps with moving goods.

Transportation Funding

Several local and national groups are praising a popular transportation funding bill recently signed into law, but some experts say it includes pros and cons that Southern California businesses need to prepare for.

Early this month, President Barack Obama signed the $305 billion five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which funds transportation improvements to highways, rail lines, transit and other transportation modes.

One benefit for trucking companies is a pilot program that removes, in some cases, a requirement that drivers moving international goods or moving across state lines be at least 21 years old, said Dan Smith, principal of freight and transportation consulting firm Tioga Group Inc. in Philadelphia and Moraga. Under the FAST Act, that age restriction is lifted for armed services veterans and reservists under 21 who drove trucks while deployed on active duty.

“What we want to see happen is for that program to be really successful so Congress expands the program to other younger drivers,” he said.

A potential negative for importers is that the bill’s big budget received funding from customs fees, and Smith speculates that could potentially reduce the number of customs agents at seaports, including the twin L.A. ports. Fewer customs agents inspecting imported containers could delay their delivery to cargo owners.

“It’s an even stronger reason to clean up your act when it comes to customs so your container doesn’t have to be touched by an individual,” Smith said.

Clean Thinking

Emelio Castaneda, president of vegetable and fruit processor Field Fresh Foods Inc. in Gardena, is well aware of regulatory pressure for owners like him to switch to trucks that burn fewer emissions than the diesel-powered ones he uses.

So for two weeks this fall, he and his truck drivers tested a compressed natural gas-powered heavy-duty semi-tractor truck through a free trial program run by downtown L.A.’s Southern California Gas Co.

Castaneda’s employees drove the truck to San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to pick up produce, he said. Its best test was during a 376-mile trip carrying 40,000 pounds, which is typical for his company. Drivers tested the vehicles for speed while heading up hills; ease of operation and use, which included refueling; ergonomics; and logistics in finding a fueling station.

“I was positively impressed,” he said.

Castaneda is already a fan of passenger vehicles that use compressed natural gas, and his business owns several. He sees potential savings in the trucks because natural gas prices have been stable. He would consider investing in the trucks but would need to price them out and learn more about repair issues.

“I look for practices that we can put into place that bring a better rate of return than other solutions,” he said.

Staff reporter Carol Lawrence can be reached at clawrence@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 549-5225, ext. 237.

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