The Port of Long Beach is in the early days of implementing the largest capital expansion program in its history, so it was with a sense of relief that the Southern California transportation community last week welcomed as the port’s new executive director an industry veteran who understands port infrastructure and operations.
The harbor commission conducted a nationwide search before it chose J. Christopher Lytle as executive director of the nation’s second-largest container port. Lytle had been serving as the port’s deputy executive director and chief operating officer since 2008. In his career he has dealt with issues involving marine terminals, port productivity and rail connectivity in executive positions at CMA CGM, P&O Ports North America, Sea-Land Service and APM Terminals, mostly in operations.
Lytle replaces Richard Steinke, who in his 14 years as executive director became a local legend by deftly guiding the port through environmental landmines, bouts of terminal congestion and battles with a city administration that creatively used port funds to address the city’s financial problems. Steinke announced earlier this year that he would retire in the fall.
Steinke’s legacy in Long Beach is a Clean Air Action Plan that serves as an environmental template for expansion projects, the PierPass extended gates program that allows terminal operators to flex their hours to accommodate fluctuations in cargo volume and an understanding with the city as to how much port revenue can be put to non-port uses.
Lytle’s challenge is to build modern, automated marine terminals that will efficiently handle container volumes never before seen at U.S. ports. He must oversee the replacement of the aging Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is traversed by 15 percent of all U.S. containerized imports, and improve rail connectivity at a gateway that depends on discretionary intermodal freight for more than half of its container volume.
Lytle sees the port’s 10-year, $4.4 billion capital program as the tool to meet these challenges and secure Long Beach’s position as one of North America’s largest gateways. In addition to the $1 billion Gerald Desmond Bridge replacement, significant projects include the $750 million, 345-acre Middle Harbor terminal; the $850 million, 300-acre Pier G terminal; the greenfield, $650 million 175-acre Pier S terminal; and several on-dock rail and roadway connectors.
“From my standpoint as executive director, I have to make sure these projects are well-controlled, but with a sense of urgency. They must be completed on time and on or below budget,” he said. Lytle’s sense of urgency comes from knowing the most difficult times experienced by Long Beach and Los Angeles over the past decade occurred when construction of marine terminals and rail and truck infrastructure didn’t keep up with periods of intense cargo growth.
Lytle is confident Long Beach will fund each project to completion. A profitable and fiscally conservative port, Long Beach will use its self-generated revenues and will leverage its excellent credit rating in the bond markets. In the current fiscal year, the port will borrow $300 million of the $629 million it will spend on capital projects by Sept. 30, 2012. He said this year’s capital program is “unprecedented” in the port’s history and demonstrates his commitment to keep port development a step ahead of cargo growth.
Long Beach in recent years has worked to overcome the image of the Southern California ports as being detached from the carrier and shipper communities and acting with a sense of entitlement. Lytle intends to increase the presence of port staff at industry forums and in individual meetings with cargo interests. “Our customers have many port choices,” he said. “I will listen to the BCOs to hear what they are getting and what they are not getting from us.”
He also intends to be more visible at city council meetings to make sure the port’s views on issues that are critical to the maritime industry are heard. One of his first actions was to meet with Mayor Bob Foster. “Our relationship is a good one,” Lytle said. “The mayor is interested in having this port run like a business. We want this port to be run like a business.”