Monday, April 11, 2005 | There are moments in a city’s life, as in any person’s life, to put up or shut up, and forever thereafter to be at peace with the decision.

This is the only way to avoid the chronic civic symptom of “What If…”

For many years, San Diego port commissioners have been divided on daring to go all out to challenge America’s busiest cargo port at Los Angeles/Long Beach.

Of course, if successful, it would change the character of San Diego Bay. Of course, it would provide a major inflow of jobs and income.

It could interfere with the growing image of San Diego as a cruise ship center. And of course it would challenge the Port of San Diego to prove it could compete with the giants, a role not yet in character with the leisurely entrepreneurial pace of this Port or, for that matter, the aspirations of the city of San Diego as a whole. The most recent champion of a heavy emphasis on cargo shipping has been the former port commissioner Peter Q. Davis, and his support has wavered.

But now comes a moment to put up or shut up.

There is record crowding of port facilities at Long Beach and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reports that the two ports are “so backed up that as many as 50 ships are kept waiting offshore as long as a week at a time.”

Shipping terminals are equally crowded at San Francisco and Oakland. San Diego’s relatively small terminal facilities are busy. Port expansion is limited at Los Angeles and Long Beach by environmental and other restrictions.

In Mexico City on Friday, a coalition of Mexican shipping interests said they propose to build a $1 billion port at Punta Colonet south of Ensenada. It would link with a new rail line to the Imperial Valley and attempt to siphon off part of the West Coast cargo business, which generates an estimated $200 billion in annual revenue.

None of this may happen, of course, but major Asian cargo shippers are taking it seriously. They see no other viable West Coast options for swelling trade.

San Diego is certainly not currently an option, if for no other reason than the seemingly perpetual local neglect of developing a first-class rail connection to the east.

It may well not be a future that San Diegans would choose. The last to try it, in 1912, was a Spreckels, and his name is most prominently preserved in San Diego on a part-time movie house. But someone will likely build a new fortune from this current challenge. Trade between Asia and the West Coast is not likely to waver anytime soon from its current lofty levels.

And we San Diegans do not need to hear any more “What If”s” from our leadership.

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