I may have relayed this anecdote before, but if so, it's worth repeating. After a late-night flight had deposited me at Ontario (Calif.) Airport sometime after midnight a few months ago, I found myself struggling to remain within posted speed limits along the virtually empty I-10 and 710 freeways en route to Long Beach. That in a nutshell explains the enormous promise of the PierPass program, which last weekend began to encourage the shifting of container movements to off-peak hours by assessing a per-container fee on all daytime moves.
It also makes it all the more difficult to understand why anyone would be complaining at what amounts to the dawn of a promising new era for logistics in Southern California. Yet that is exactly what the Teamsters union is doing.
PierPass is the first undertaking in years that truly rises to the level of the challenge posed by skyrocketing container imports. At a port complex whose 13 million TEU movements last year would rank as it the sixth-largest port in the world were Los Angeles and Long Beach a single entity, PierPass aims to shift a full 40 percent of that cargo to off-peak hours, a monumentally ambitious effort. The program has support from many quarters. Policymakers have bought into it; the program has stopped in its tracks aggressive state efforts to force terminals to stay open late. Trucking companies have long been supportive of nighttime gates, and under PierPass the terminals agreed to full-service gates as trucking companies demanded. Finally, PierPass has been embraced by the very parties - the shippers - who will be billed $80 for every 40-foot container that continues to move during peak hours. That incentive will go a long way toward overcoming what has been the biggest obstacle to off-peak terminal gate hours, the unwillingness or inability of shippers to receive cargo at night.
This is all profoundly positive for one basic reason: Every educated analysis of container port capacity in the U.S. comes to the same conclusion, which is that because of the size of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and limited capacity at others and at the Panama Canal, congestion problems in Southern California can't be avoided.
All of which makes protests of PierPass difficult to understand. Last Friday, under the questionable premise that PierPass "only benefits the shippers and hurts the motor carriers and truckers," the Teamsters union called for a rally by harbor truckers to protest the program. Since the Teamsters union appeared on the container shipping scene a few years ago, it has performed a valuable service by bringing needed attention to generally poor conditions in harbor trucking. In fact, pay and conditions for harbor truckers have improved in recent years. Yet in this latest ploy to ingratiate itself with the truckers with the ultimate - but probably futile - aim of organizing them, the Teamsters union is only making a nuisance of itself. That's because PierPass is only going to benefit the drivers that the Teamsters is trying to organize, so far with very limited success.
There are two ways truckers will benefit. First, go back to the empty freeway. No traffic means truckers can complete more jobs. Because they get paid by the trip, that means more income for them. Second, PierPass has given trucking companies an opportunity to generate more revenue, some of which will inevitably be passed along to their drivers. Shippers that contract directly with trucking companies appear to be accepting new nighttime surcharges and in some cases proactively volunteering to pay them. Shippers understand that moving to nighttime operations is inevitable, and the sooner they start, the sooner the entire system - including them - will begin to receive the benefits.
And in today's environment of driver shortages, it would be inaccurate for anyone to suggest the driver won't see at least some of that money. To ensure they have enough drivers, some trucking companies today are paying drivers for waiting time and making other concessions that a few years ago were unheard of.
The Teamsters union says the program will force drivers to work day and night, and thus "risk violating the hours-of-service regulations to keep pace with the increased workload." We assume truckers are law-abiding and will not violate hours-of-service rules. Assuming they don't and few truckers decide to work at night, the response will be the same as it has been over the last few years of trucker shortages: higher rates of pay. Presumably the Teamsters wouldn't object to that.
Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7158, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.