How ports and communities can co-exist

How ports and communities can co-exist

When I was first elected to the California State Assembly in 1998, I carried a bill for the California Association of Port Authorities that would have provided state matching funds for dredging projects at California's ports. At the time, their projections showed a doubling of trade by 2020, and warned that if we did nothing to address infrastructure needs, we risked gridlock.

The industry prediction proved conservative. Trade through the ports has tripled since 1998. (Cargo volume at Long Beach is up 45 percent this year, after a 24 percent increase in 2004).

That growth must be tempered by the cost to the local communities. This growth has created enormous problems in Southern California, such as clogged highways and rail lines, and degraded air quality.

According to data from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, an almost invisible cloud of death hangs over the basin, and the largest single contributors are the trucks, trains and ships that move into and out of the ports. Doctors have linked high smog levels in Los Angeles to increased rates of asthma. Air pollution has been tied to higher rates of cancer and respiratory disease. A 2003 county health survey said 15 percent of Long Beach children age 17 or younger have been diagnosed with asthma, compared with 12 percent countywide and 8 percent nationally.

What's going to slow trade is congestion. Last year, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles had to divert more than 100 ships to other ports because of truck and rail congestion. The industry knows about this congestion problem. Ocean carriers have imposed a $200-per-container "congestion fee" on containers moving through Los Angeles and Long Beach. This money does not go to infrastructure but stays with the ocean carriers.

A report this year by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. stated that Southern California must spend at least $10.5 billion to improve railroads, railyards and highways to keep up with surging international trade or risk losing more than 500,000 new jobs and more than $1 billion in taxes a year. The LAEDC also called for a $100-per-container fee to help fund these projects.

Technology and regulation can help alleviate pollution problems.

Cold-ironing allows a ship to turn off its engines and plug into shoreside electrical power. One terminal in Los Angeles has used cold-ironing for almost a year. The Navy has used the technology for decades.

Last month, I attended a briefing by the California State-Long Beach engineering school on its proposal for moving goods using magnetic-levitation cargo trains. This system would emit zero emissions and move cargo at more than 100 mph to the inland railyards in 90 minutes, compared with 24 to 48 hours with the diesel locomotives used now. The school estimates the movement of 5 million containers a year if this system were fully operational.

In the meantime, the federal government could do more to protect our communities. The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate emissions from gigantic container ships. It has already regulated U.S.-flag ships, putting them at a competitive disadvantage, but has chosen not to regulate foreign-flag ships.

The U.S. Senate should ratify Marpol Annex VI. This would allow the EPA to create a Sulfur Emission Control Area. Once a SECA is established, a specified cap on sulfur levels in marine fuels for sale or combustion can be stipulated. The California Air Resources Board estimates that a sulfur reduction in marine fuels will reduce particulate matter by approximately 20 percent.

To its credit, the shipping industry last month started the PierPass program to extend gate hours and spread the movement of cargo. The industry has worked hard on this, and I applaud them. This program should provide some short-term relief to our congestion problems as they relate to truck traffic, but more must be done.

Last year, I authored A.B. 2042, a bill that would have required ports to cap their air emissions at 2004 levels. After intense lobbying by shipping interests, the bill was vetoed by the governor, who stated that the bill did nothing to improve air quality. This year I took him up on his message and have introduced several bills that I believe will help to clean the air and relive congestion. Most important among them is S.B. 760, which levies a $30-per-TEU user fee for improving infrastructure and port security and reducing air pollution.

If you were to believe industry, these bills will bring our robust trade to a screeching halt. I believe the industry is looking at this problem from the wrong perspective. I believe that if we can get the air pollution and traffic congestion under control, our communities will more readily accept increases in trade.

California Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal's district includes the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. He can be contacted at (562) 529-6659.