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Putting Pressure on Port Traffic

Bill aimed at reducing truck-related freeway jams and accidents would impose fees on daytime shipments.

March 01, 2004|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers may soon present users of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with a tough choice: Get their shipments off congested Southland freeways during daylight hours, or pay for the privilege.

Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) recently introduced a bill that would create a new government agency with the power to impose fees on the owners of goods being trucked in and out of the ports on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Lowenthal wants to exert economic pressure on big port customers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. to shift their container deliveries to nights and weekends, reducing peak-hour traffic jams and accidents on nearby roadways -- particularly the truck-plagued Long Beach Freeway.

The prospects for Lowenthal's bill are unclear. And it's short on details, such as how much the fees would be. But he hopes it presents enough of a threat that importers, exporters, maritime terminal operators, truckers and unions will find a solution on their own.

"I've told them that if they don't do it themselves," he warned, "the state is going to do it for them."

A hearing on the bill probably will be held in mid-April.

For now, the groups with stakes in the outcome of the bill are tiptoeing around it. They're hesitant to get into a legislative slugfest before gauging how the conflicting economic and political players come down on the fee question, said Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez. The Norwalk Democrat's district includes many large warehouses and distribution centers that get shipments from the ports.

But the bill is sure to generate controversy, he predicted.

"Nobody likes creating a new bureaucracy," said Bermudez, who has introduced his own ports bill: a barebones proposal that could provide state tax credits to shippers that move cargo at night and on weekends.

In fact, the prospect of paying fees or having government tell them how to operate is riling some port interests.

"Whenever you actually shift the real cost of doing business from society at large to the people who are doing the business, they are going to object," said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

What everyone agrees is that doing nothing is not an option. Weekday truck traffic on the Long Beach Freeway is expected to more than double to 99,300 a day over the next two decades. The Alameda Corridor, a rail conduit between the ports and downtown L.A. rail yards that opened in 2002, hasn't eased truck traffic as much as hoped.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and local residents complain that burgeoning tractor-trailer traffic is boosting diesel pollution. And California Highway Patrol statistics show a steady increase in daytime truck-related accidents on the Long Beach Freeway between 1998 and 2002.

Importers and operators of the ports' 14 maritime terminals, where containers are transferred from ships to trucks and rail cars, say they are eager to help boost public safety and cut pollution. They've participated in task force meetings and pilot projects aimed at shifting more shipping activity to night hours.

But Robin Lanier, executive director of the Waterfront Coalition, a Washington-based trade group representing major importers and exporters, said she was "a little skeptical about whether a fee in of itself will be sufficient to change behavior on the waterfront."

In part that's because moving cargo at night can dramatically increase the cost of operating at the port.

Hiring extra stevedores costs terminal operators upward of $45,000 for a six-to-eight-hour shift, while opening all 14 terminals three nights a week could cost approximately $100 million a year just in labor costs, said John R. McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., which represents cargo ship and port terminal owners.

A panel organized by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn is trying to figure out whether collecting fees would generate enough revenue to subsidize terminal operators for extra labor costs and finance construction projects.

Lanier worries that many importers might pass the new fee along to their customers -- in effect raising the price of cars from Japan and hair dryers from China for the sake of reducing freeway congestion.

Discounter Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is against the proposed fee. The company, which imports about 80,000 containers of goods a year through the L.A.-Long Beach ports, moves cargo around the clock and would consider shifting some of its import business to other West Coast or Gulf Coast ports if the fees were imposed.

"We don't pass on costs to consumers," said Vice President Bob McAdam. "We'd look at all our options to keep our prices low."

Persuading the myriad port-related groups to support fees, deciding how high to set them and divvying up the revenue remains a puzzle, agreed John Doherty, chief executive of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. The fee, which could generate millions of dollars a month, should not be so high to induce shippers to take their business to less costly West Coast ports, he cautioned.

Hahn dismissed the threat that businesses might pull out, insisting that fees are the only way to "push 40% of the cargo to off-peak hours." But Hahn bristles at Lowenthal's idea of a new agency. The Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, she said, already has the power to collect and distribute fees.

"I think in a way he's trying to reinvent the wheel," Hahn said.

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Times staff writer Deborah Schoch contributed to this report.

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