The roots of congestion

The roots of congestion

Proposals for new container fees are being presented up and down the West Coast. The fees deal with two aspects of the intermodal process. Some would help to mitigate area highway congestion. Others would help clean up the environment.

Few things can send shippers, port terminal operators, steamship operators, and other participants in the intermodal industry to the barricades faster than new user fees or taxes. At the risk of being radical, I'll observe that in almost every port from Seattle to Long Beach, congestion can be tied directly to freight operations. And environmental degradation is a real issue, whether it is produced by trucks idling for hours waiting to get into or out of a terminal or by a docked ship continuing to run its diesel engines to provide its own power.

What legislators and other local and state government officials do not seem to understand, however, is that unilaterally trying to alleviate freight-driven congestion and environmental problems could cause more economic damage to their communities than that now caused by the huge numbers of trucks in port areas.

As the prison warden said to Paul Newman in the old movie "Cool Hand Luke," "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

Of all the West Coast port complexes, only the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are close to immunity from real concern about rising government fees, and there are limitations there, too. As many as half of the 13 million containers arriving annually at the twin ports are destined for local consumption, but the 50 percent is put on trains destined for numerous U.S. points. A new fee could cause ship lines to shift intermodal cargo, or all service at smaller ports, elsewhere.

Congestion and environmental concerns are among the issues driving the development of ports along Mexico's Pacific Coast and at Vancouver and Prince Rupert on Canada's Pacific Coast. Virtually all the containers arriving at the Mexican ports will be destined elsewhere, and an efficient system can be built from scratch to get containers off ships and onto trains. There will be no idling trucks spewing diesel particulate emissions into the Mexican skies. These special-purpose ports of Lazaro Cardenas, Manzanillo and Punta Colonet will have other problems, but they will not face demands for new taxes or user fees to mitigate congestion and environmental degradation.

Vancouver is Canada's largest port complex, but most containers are bound for the U.S. Midwest or eastern Canada. Prince Rupert will be similar to the Mexican ports. There is no local economy to speak of, and all the containers will move eastward. Prince Rupert will be little more than a transfer point between ships and Canadian National Railway.

It is unreasonable to expect communities to accept the congestion and environmental damage they are forced to tolerate. The legislators seeking to tax containers to generate funds for mitigation are responding to constituent demands. Their solutions won't work; no one is forced to do business in their ports. Raise the cost of doing business above that at a Mexican or Canadian port, and traffic will divert to Mexico and Canada. These problems cannot be resolved locally, probably not even at the state level. Those living near West Coast ports essentially are subsidizing people in the rest of the U.S. by absorbing the traffic congestion and environmental damage caused by freight.

I don't know how to solve the problem. But I do know that if this country had a real national transportation policy, port-area congestion and environmental damage would be a national problem, not a state or local problem. Instead, we have a modal-centric Department of Transportation organized into silos that make the old style of railroad management look absolutely progressive. The Federal Highway Administration is concerned only with setting engineering standards and funding highway construction. Maritime Administration jurisdiction stops at the docks. The Federal Railroad Administration is primarily a safety agency with few funding programs and no sense of responsibility for the operation of the intermodal system.

Until the DOT's Office of the Secretary - created to develop a national transportation policy some 40 years ago - persuades Congress to erase some of the lines between the modes and then knocks a few administrators' heads together to make them work for a common goal, the problems of the West Coast ports will only grow worse.