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Longer Port Hours an Idea Whose Time Has Come

Terminal operators hope that the move to nearly all-night operations will help unclog a cargo logjam.

September 08, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

With the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach gearing up to lose some sleep, terminal operators expressed hope Tuesday that the impending move to nearly all-night gate operations would ease congestion that has kept ships snoozing offshore for days.

International trade at the world's third-busiest harbor complex is running at a record pace for the third straight year. Longshore workers can't get cargo unloaded fast enough, and trucks and railroads can't move it. Some shipping lines have diverted cargo to other ports, and the state Legislature has threatened to step in.

To break the logjam, the gates at 13 terminals at the twin ports will begin phasing in a nearly round-the-clock schedule Nov. 6. By the end of six months, the gates will be open to truckers for all but the four hours from 3 to 7 a.m. each day. Currently, gates are open from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The plan -- agreed upon late last month -- was the result of long hours of negotiations involving shipping lines, stevedore companies, trucking companies, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, elected officials and local customers of the ports.

It will focus on the approximately 4.8 million containers a year that are bound for local destinations.

"It's a huge undertaking. This is a system of national significance, and we have to make sure it works well for every stakeholder," said Jon Hemingway, chief executive of SSA Marine, a shipping line that has partnerships with three container terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"We are doubling the capacity by doing what we do during the day hours but doing it when the commuters are not on the road."

There had been talk before about extending port hours, but this time the discussions were propelled by the unprecedented level of international trade that brought a record 500 containerships to the ports last month.

There was considerable political pressure as well, spawned by local commuters who were tired of feeling like the grass underneath the feet of so many 18-wheel elephants. By one estimate, 15% of the nation's international cargo is being moved to points east on Southern California freeways.

"Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore are already operating 24 hours a day," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, a longtime proponent of extending the ports' hours.

The final straw could have been legislation by Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) that would have required the ports to keep air emissions at or below 2004 levels and charge trucks a fee for moving cargo from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The people to work the docks 20 hours a day will come in part from the hiring of 3,000 nonunion workers who were selected for training in a recent nationwide lottery. But ILWU officials are already raising doubts that there will be enough workers to do the job.

"We've been saying this for years and we are ready to do it, but it's going to take a lot more people than that to operate 20 hours a day," said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the union. "More like 5,000 than 3,000."

To help pay for the longer hours, the terminal operators will charge cargo owners a fee of $20 for 20-foot containers and $40 for 40-foot containers. The fee would be refunded to owners who ship their cargo during off hours.

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