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Long Lines at the Ports Are Gone

Turnaround times for container ships have returned to normal after delays, but the reason is fewer vessels are arriving, officials say.

November 11, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Turnaround times for container ships at the largest ports on the West Coast have returned to normal after a month of costly congestion and delays, according to official monitors.

Nearly 200 of the enormous transpacific vessels were stranded outside ports from San Diego to Seattle during a 10-day employer lockout, which was ended by a federal injunction Oct. 9. At the time, industry experts estimated it would take at least six weeks to whittle down the backlog.

However, officials in the sprawling ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Puget Sound, which includes Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., said as of this weekend, the long lines were gone. "We're now declaring ourselves at the high end of normal," said Dick McKenna of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Marine Exchange, an industry cooperative that monitors ship movements.

"That's the good news," he said. "The bad news is it's only because our ship counts are way down." Typically the two ports receive about eight container ships a day, but in recent weeks, the average has been only about 3 1/2, he said.

It is probable that the drop is temporary, and that traffic will return to typical levels in coming weeks as shipping lines resume normal rotations, McKenna added.

The Marine Exchange at Puget Sound, the coast's other major commercial shipping complex, declared this weekend that "vessel scheduling has returned to normal." The group planned to discontinue a daily Web site update on the backup as of today.

In contrast to the situation at sea, some terminal yards still are jammed with containers and suffering from equipment and labor shortages, which are causing delays in moving the cargo to customers, according to representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the trucking industry.

"It's definitely improving," union spokesman Steve Stallone said. "But it will be a couple more weeks before things are really cleared up."

The development comes as the union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. trade blame for the slow pace of recovery. The Justice Department is weighing evidence submitted by both sides, and might ask a federal court to issue further orders regarding the pace of work.

Meanwhile, a federal mediator has called both sides back to the bargaining table Wednesday after a weeklong break from negotiations. A tentative agreement was reached this month on the sticky issue of labor-saving technology, but pension, wages and the union's arbitration system remain areas of contention.

The union represents 10,500 dockworkers, who handle about $300 billion in merchandise moving through the ports each year.

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