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Keep Ports Open Off-Peak

January 11, 2004

The only way to quickly relieve the daytime truck traffic that chokes the Long Beach Freeway and endangers commuters is to expand hours of operation at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. It's harder than it sounds, but a special panel of civic leaders, shippers and retailers are close to agreeing on a plan that could reduce truck trips during peak travel periods by as much as 40%. But first the panel itself must punch through a patch of gridlock.

The logistics for achieving this fix are formidable, involving the coordination of ocean freighters, dockworkers, trucking companies and the warehouses where goods are delivered.

Most panel members agree that charging higher fees to move goods by day is the best incentive for shippers to switch to nights and weekends. But one sticking point is whether the higher fees would hurt small and medium shippers that, unlike the big Wal-Marts, can't afford to order warehouses to stay open for night or weekend deliveries.

A way out of this jam would be to offer another alternative: Use the income generated by higher trucking fees to subsidize shipping by rail. The year-old Alameda Corridor rail line from the ports to downtown Los Angeles is moving only about a third of the ports' containers; it was intended to move half. Many shippers are unwilling to pay to send a container by rail only as far as downtown. Plans are underway to extend a rail spur east to Inland Empire warehouses, but that is years away.

So for now, up the 710 Freeway go 47,000 big trucks a day, a number that is expected to double or triple in 20 years. As long as most port gates are open only on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., that's when the tractor-trailers will be on the freeway, increasing congestion along with the chances of accidents. A deadly crash in October led Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the harbor area, to say enough is enough -- and convene the special panel.

A year ago, no one believed all sides could ever agree on hours. That was before plans to upgrade the freeway were shelved by opposition from nearby residents, then buried by government budget crises. Reaching an agreement on expanding port hours is not only the best short-term solution, it's the only one left.

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