After almost five years of experience with the centralized examination of cargo in Southern California, the trade community can safely say the concept works.

Centralized examination sites, or CESs, are privately operated warehouses designated by the Customs Service for the inspection of cargo.In the past, Customs inspectors would drive around the sprawling harbor area, spending an hour or two at each marine terminal.

With the change, cargo exams that used to take three to five days now are completed in a single day. Initial fears about traffic congestion and high fees at the exam sites have not materialized.

"If you spot your container at the dock door during normal business hours, we'll inspect it the same day before going home," said Robert Six, seaport director of transportation and control for Customs' Los Angeles district.

"It used to take three to five days - sometimes as much as 11 days to clear a shipment," said Arthur Litman, president of Castelazo & Associates, a customhouse broker in Los Angeles.

"It cost a lot because of lost orders and demurrage," he told the Harbor Transportation Club of Southern California.

Brokers' major concern initially was that CES operators, being in somewhat of a monopoly situation, would charge excessive fees for their services, but fees have remained competitive, Mr. Litman said. There are five CES sites serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and one at Los Angeles International Airport.

Most importers do not mind paying the extra cost required to truck a container to a CES because the savings in time and demurrage charges more than cover the added expense, Mr. Litman said.

The CES concept is more efficient for both Customs and the trade community, Mr. Six said.

"We used to have 20 inspectors driving all over the Los Angeles Basin, burning up 20 cars a year and performing about 300 exams a month," he said. Now the same 20 inspectors perform 1,500 to 1,800 exams a month.

The fivefold increase in productivity has been accompanied by increased seizures of cargo both for commercial fraud, such as copyright and quota violations, and for narcotics, Mr. Six said.

Over the past three years, the Los Angeles district led the nation in commercial fraud seizures, he said.

What concerns the Southern California trade community now is the process of selecting CES operators for the next five years. Customs opens up the bidding process periodically to ensure that CES operators remain competitive and responsive to the needs of the importing community.

The Los Angeles district director has appointed a selection committee, which includes private business executives, to review applications and advise him on the final choices. Mr. Six said some 25 applicants are competing for the five seaport CES sites.

Mr. Litman said there is an unmistakable buzz in the trade community that Customs has already determined who the CES operators will be and that the selection process is primarily for show, but Mr. Six denied the rumor. "It is patently untrue," he said.