The state of California has had it with East Coast and Canadian ports poaching its cargo, and a proposed bill in the state Legislature will tackle this problem by developing a state freight plan to invest in port, highway and rail infrastructure.
“The big story in California is beat the canal,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, author of Assembly Bill 14, in reference to the Panama Canal expansion project, which will allow large vessels to transit the canal and call directly at East and Gulf Coast ports.
The effort to develop a state freight plan is timely because the MAP-21 bill at the federal level encourages states to integrate their freight plans with the national effort to improve the interstate movement of freight, Lowenthal told the California Maritime Leadership Symposium last week in Sacramento.
California still boasts three of the top five or six container ports in the country. About 40 percent of U.S. imports and 30 percent of the nation’s exports move through Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.
However, with Prince Rupert, Canada, and East Coast ports aggressively seeking Asian cargo, the market share of California’s ports, and other West Coast ports, is gradually eroding. About 70 percent of imports from Asia enter the U.S. through the West Coast, down from 80 percent 15 years ago.
California voters in 2006 approved a $20 billion bond measure known as Proposition 1B to improve transportation infrastructure. “There will be no new Prop 1B,” said Brian Kelly, acting secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. “Rather, the California transportation system needs an on-going source of funding,” Kelly said.
The agency is leading an effort to develop a state freight advisory committee as part of the process for developing a state freight plan that will define short and long-term plans for investments in the freight transportation system.
The goal of this effort is to indentify key gateways and corridors in California that are of national significance. California will provide incentives for innovative project financing and project delivery. Maritime projects will receive equal attention with highway and rail projects in the state.
The program recognizes the changing dynamics in global trade, including Suez Canal routings to East Coast ports that are already underway, near-sourcing of manufacturing, completion of the Panama Canal enlargement project in 2015 and the strategy of shipping lines to call at fewer ports as they introduce ever larger vessels.
Also, this effort recognizes the reality that California has the strictest environmental laws in the U.S. governing ports and inland transportation. “At present, many of our regulatory challenges are not faced at other ports or by the maritime industry in our competitors’ states. We need to grow our volumes to help off-set these costs, make our environmental programs successful and work to build on our environmental successes by supporting federal and international efforts to broaden the application of environmental initiatives,” the California Maritime Leadership Symposium stated in a position paper.
California can play a key role in developing a national freight plan, with California’s delegation comprising 10 percent of Congress, and congressional representatives from both the Los Angeles and Long Beach port districts who are familiar with port issues, said Keith Lesnick, associate administrator of intermodal system development at the U.S. Maritime Administration. “You can have an impact,” he said.