Friday, April 15, 2005 | Last summer, as many as 50 ships lined up off the coast near the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, waiting as long as a week before berthing at either of the behemoth shipping centers. Pasha Hawaiian Transport Line, an automobile carrier, was among the shippers looking for an alternative freight center to expedite their cargo’s delivery during the slowdown.

“We were able to make a permanent customer out of PHTL,” said Kevin Arner, director of trade development at the Unified Port of San Diego.

Arner and officials at ports around the region are attempting to attract more business to their waterfronts by siphoning off cargo carriers that normally use the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports as their West Coast docking centers.

The boom in transpacific shipping, fueled by the recent swell in Chinese exports, has prodded the ports and others in the region, including the Unified Port of San Diego, to expand their facilities and improve their stevedoring efficiency to better compete in the burgeoning West Coast freight market. And, according to a report this week, the search for room to accommodate the influx of freight has shippers has made it south to Baja California.

U.S. port activity to double

The congestion of last year has since eased with the hiring of 5,000 new employees to man the docks at Los Angeles and Long Beach, but officials at the ports – the two biggest on the West Coast – aren’t taking anything for granted.

“Right now there’s a lot of jockeying,” Port of Los Angeles spokesman Arley Baker said. “In terms of the windfall of business going on, everyone wants a piece of the pie, and right now the pie is getting bigger and bigger.”

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, separated by about a half-dozen miles, account for more than 95 percent of the $230 billion in foreign commerce exchanged annually at Southern California sea ports. About half the cargo imported stays in the state’s lower half, and the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are making improvements themselves to stay competitive to protect their edge.

“That cargo doesn’t have to come here,” he said, adding that in the last three years the twin ports have improved efficiency by constructing a subterranean railroad corridor that funnels to the downtown rail houses 20 miles away to better ease truck congestion on the freeways. The ports are also planning to extend its hours of unloading and loading ships.

“We know that if it’s cheaper for the cargo to go somewhere else, it will move, and we’ve seen some movement,” Baker said.

Expanding for the influx

The upgrades were made to attract more “breakbulk” cargo – freight like steel, cement and other building materials that aren’t packaged in containers – that the San Diego port feels could be drawn from the two larger ports because of the anticipated congestion.

“A lot of the congestion in L.A. and Long Beach is due to the container ships,” said McCormack, who noted that the San Diego port would have to dredge down to 70 feet in order to compete for the container-holding megaships. “San Diego can capitalize on that because breakbulk ships are being pushed out of those ports. We can a gain a lot of business by catering to those different types of goods.”

Arner said the port could be handling the freight needs of places like Riverside and should be serving San Diego County and Baja California. “Our bottom line is that we want to bring business and jobs to San Diego,” he said.

Like San Diego, the Port of Hueneme in Ventura County may be able to capitalize on attracting non-container cargo that might be turned off by congestion at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, Berg said.

The facility expanded in the late 1990s so that it could accommodate “roll-on-roll-off” cargo like automobiles and is planning to access another 630 acres on U.S. Navy property, spokesman Will Berg said.

“We’ve been scrambling like sons of guns here,” Berg said. “If we can convince the Navy the benefits of this, then we’ll be on our way.”

The Port of Oakland has spent nearly $1 billion in the last five years to accommodate the anticipated cargo growth, spokesman Harold Jones said. Oakland’s port commissioners believe the improvements – which included deepening its channel for container vessels and building cargo terminals, cranes and truck and rail docks – will help keep West Coast shipping business in California, he said.

Currently operating at 50 percent capacity, Oakland believes it will also be able to draw business from the Central Valley agricultural producers that now operate out of Southern California’s crowded ports.

“We’re now poised to provide the support and relief needed in the state,” said Jones, whose port draws in about $26 billion in foreign commerce annually.

Speculation about a new Mexican port

Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Marine Terminals Corp. is planning to build a $1 billion port on Mexico’s Pacific Coast at Punta Colonet to compete for the a chunk of Southern California’s billions. According to the Times, Oakland-based MTC’s proposal to the Mexican government included the construction of a port capable of running 1 million container units every year, as well as the public buildings, roads and rails necessary to operate.

While officials at MTC, a family-owned terminal operator at several West Coast ports including San Diego’s, claimed the Times report was inaccurate and that MTC has not finalized a deal, company executives said MTC is considering several alternatives to existing ports to deal with the estimated influx, including Mexico.

“A 10 percent growth rate means we have to create additional infrastructure capacity equal to the current capacity of the ports of Savannah and Tacoma combined every year,” MTC President Doug Tilden said in a press statement Thursday. “I do not think that any reasonable person could believe that we can accomplish this in the current environment of negligible port growth and serious funding issues related to inland infrastructure.”

Many close to the issue said rumblings about another port in Baja have surfaced before.

“They’ve been talking about this for 10 years,” said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that represents 16,000 longshoremen on the West Coast. “A billion dollars will never cut it … when it comes to the amount of investment it will take to get it done.”

Serge Dedina, executive director of the conservation group Wildcoast Foundation, is familiar with the Punta Colonet site and said building a port there would be difficult.

The location is locked out of the peninsula’s mainland by the immense Sierra Juarez and La Salina mountain ranges, and dredging along the coast would be difficult because of the vast kelp beds and reefs existing there and because it would probably attract resentment from the local fishing industry dependent on the current seascape, Dedina said.

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