West Coast Watch: Issues demand unified approach

West Coast Watch: Issues demand unified approach

LOS ANGELES -- The relationship between shipping lines and harbor trucking companies has always been strained, and both industries have suffered as a result. The hand-off of containers from marine terminals to harbor truckers is the weakest link in the intermodal chain, causing delays at the nation's seaports and incurring the wrath of local residents who are tired of long lines of trucks spewing diesel fumes into the air they breathe.

The strained relations between the maritime and trucking industries stem primarily from a failure to communicate. The intermodal industry continues to operate in separate silos, with shipping lines, terminal operators, truckers and railroads each doing what is best for their industry without stepping back to view the larger picture. It was refreshing, then, to hear Tom Teofilo, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, tell intermodal operators last month that these silos must come down and someone has to take the lead in bringing the diverse industries together for the benefit of the entire transportation community. Teofilo, who represents shipping lines and terminal operators, volunteered the PMSA to take the leading role.

Community groups a hurdle for projects

While his comments focused on Los Angeles-Long Beach, the problems faced by the nation's largest port complex are representative of what container ports throughout the U.S. experience today. Community groups are now deeply involved in the affairs of seaports, blocking or delaying crucial terminal expansion projects, such as completion of the China Shipping Container Line terminal in Los Angeles. Much needed infrastructure projects, including the expansion of the vital I-710 highway in Los Angeles-Long Beach, are in limbo because of a lack of funding or community opposition. Outlying communities that once welcomed the jobs created by distribution warehouses are voting to halt the construction of any facility that generates more truck traffic from the harbor. Local communities want to separate intermodal rail traffic from vehicular traffic, as the $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor in Southern California has done, but the federal and state governments do not have enough money to fund such costly projects.

These developments harm shipping lines and terminal operators just as much as they hurt trucking companies and railroads. The intermodal industry as a whole has to get the message out that freight transportation benefits every region's economic health, and that it is possible to balance the requirements for infrastructure development and port operations with the desire of local residents to preserve their quality of life. A splintered industry in which maritime companies do not communicate with trucking and rail carriers cannot mount a powerful lobbying effort in Washington or in state capitals.

In California, the intermodal industry was brought together by force. Implementation of the Lowenthal bill, which fines terminal operators $250 for every truck that idles for more than 30 minutes at a marine terminal, generated a number of meetings the past six months between trucking companies and terminal operators. The two groups hammered out the details of appointment systems and extended gate hours, but the industries are still not communicating sufficiently. Terminal operators report that fewer than 10 percent of the truckers arriving in the harbor are making appointments. Truckers say the terminals haven't done enough outreach to educate them how the appointment systems work.

Business approach needed

The meetings so far have been held under the direction of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state agency that enforces the Lowenthal bill. Government involvement may have been inevitable, but it is not the best solution to the intermodal industry's problems. What is needed is a business approach where each industry reveals the costs inherent in appointment systems and extended gate hours. If maritime and trucking executives speak person-to- person about the true costs and operational limitations they face, a real-world solution to the intermodal problems is possible. The maritime and trucking interests must also drag their common customers - importers, exporters and retailers - to the meetings as well. Shippers have been even more reticent than carriers to talk about intermodal transportation problems, but they will ultimately pay the bill, so they better get involved.

California has demonstrated that it will step in and mandate solutions to transportation problems if intermodal companies can not do it on their own. Other states are poised to do the same. Since the maritime industry has the most at stake in this debate in terms of assets, it is logical that groups such as the PMSA take the lead in bringing all of the groups together to develop a business solution to intermodal transportation problems.

-- Bill Mongelluzzo is West Coast editor for The Journal of Commerce.