Opinion: Extended gates not panacea for So. Cal. congestion

Opinion: Extended gates not panacea for So. Cal. congestion

There has been a growing emphasis of late on mandating extended gate hours at marine terminals as a means of addressing air quality and traffic congestion concerns in Southern California. While extended hours may ultimately be part of a larger comprehensive solution to these challenges, the current debate is missing the mark.

Until policy makers focus on cargo rather than regulating marine terminal gate hours, we will not find a successful solution for moving cargo out of the ports at off peak hours. Forcing one element of the supply chain to remain open longer hours might be politically expedient, but it is tragically flawed. If no one wants (or can receive) cargo at two o'clock in the morning, this costly experiment is doomed to fail.

Marine terminals operating in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach currently operate extended gate hours -- a function of the need and demand of the cargo owners who control when and how cargo moves. Approximately 17 percent of all cargo that moves through the two ports does so at off-peak hours. Mandating that marine terminals operate at all hours when there is no demand will impose a financial hardship borne solely by the terminal operators and is poor public policy because it won't relieve traffic congestion or reduce air pollution. Worse, it diverts attention from the bigger issues at play -- a complex transportation network problem that must work together and share in the costs of finding solutions to the problems.

California is growing at the rate of approximately 600,000 people every year. An estimated 50,000 acres of farmland are converted for urban use every year. This unrestricted growth and the additional people and new business it creates, all consume products that are imported through California's ports. The ports don't create the demand, they respond to it. If the ports somehow magically disappeared, more than 30 million people in California would need to find another transportation mode to receive their consumer products, probably in more rail traffic and trucks congesting streets and highways throughout the state.

Marine terminal operators have already made enormous investments in state-of-the art technology and equipment to move cargo efficiently. It hasn't been an easy process, one that often runs counter to an entrenched labor situation. Technology such as the use of optical recognition readers (OCR's), which have been part of our daily lives, are just coming into use at the terminals -- a benefit of last year's difficult labor negotiations.

We are on the verge of seeing the application of radio frequency identification technology at the terminals. This technology, while speeding the flow of cargo and enhancing port security has the additional benefit of decreasing truck idling. We have seen a corresponding investment in warehouses and distribution centers throughout California. Yet the transportation of raw materials and consumer goods between the ports and distribution centers moves on an infrastructure that is vintage 1950's. And with the state's current fiscal crisis and opposition from communities that border our freeways, we don't expect to see any freeway expansion in decades.

So the solution? According to some we should mandate that marine terminals stay open at all hours. Yet no discussion of who wants the cargo and at what hours. No discussion on the impact on outlying local communities that currently restrict truck movements at off-peak hours. No regional approach to a transportation system problem - only selected piecemeal proposals.

Extended gate hours may ultimately be a significant part of the overall solution to air quality and congestion on freeways. But penalizing one segment of California's international trade community -- a segment with little say over when cargo moves -- isn't part of the solution. It's a sound bite.

If public policy makers are serious about moving cargo to off-peak hours, they would be well advised to look at and listen to all of the many entities that control the movement of cargo.

John McLaurin is president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.