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L.A.'s Other Traffic Jam: Ports

Docks Can't Keep Up With Flood of Goods

By Kimberly Edds
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page E01

WILMINGTON, Calif. -- Hours before his three children wake up, 50-year-old trucker Manuel Vaca climbs into the cab of his big rig and makes his way to the terminals at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The gates don't open until 8 a.m., but he is usually there by 5 to secure his place in the long line of trucks. He listens to the radio. He talks to other drivers. But mostly he just waits.

"We're just killing time, and there's nothing we can do about it," said Vaca, a 12-year veteran of the trucking business.

A spot at the docks in the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is precious. Ships in San Pedro Bay commonly wait up to a week for one. (Jamie Rector -- Bloomberg News)

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There is a lot of that going on at the nation's busiest port these days, as a glut of imports from Asia, a shortage of dockworkers and breakdowns in the harbor's infrastructure have created a tangled backlog in the midst of the peak holiday season.

The crowding is not expected to significantly delay Christmas shipments as additional hiring is starting to pick up the slack. But as the national economy continues to outsource manufacturing jobs, the explosive growth in imports is taxing the capacity of the nation's ports and its road and rail system, transportation officials said.

"That's really swinging the whole transportation system around. It's just overwhelmed the infrastructure and it's catching up and surpassing us," said John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad Co. Hit with a large number of early retirements, Union Pacific recently began limiting the number of rail cars available to haul containers, creating delays beyond those at the ports.

In San Pedro Bay, dozens of ships are anchored, waiting as long as a week to be unloaded, up from the norm of less than three days. Cargo containers pile up in terminal yards waiting to be placed onto trucks or trains, as drivers like Vaca spend much of their day in line before leaving to navigate crowded freeways and more delays.

"We've been seeing double-digit increases in cargo every year. Everyone in the industry saw this coming, but we didn't prepare for it," said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dockworkers.

With volume increasing more than twice as fast as had been projected and other West Coast ports ill-equipped to handle a large influx of goods, Los Angeles-Long Beach, the largest U.S. container complex, is having to bear the brunt. Many of the ships coming from Asia are too big to make it through the Panama Canal to Eastern seaports. So the ships come in droves to Los Angeles-Long Beach and wait.

Of 82 ships at the port Tuesday, 33 were anchored in the harbor, waiting for a berth so they could unload. The two ports process 24,000 containers a day, handling 70 percent of all shipments to West Coast ports from Asian exporters, and about half of the $750 billion worth of cargo that moves through there from all locations.

Industry analysts had predicted a modest 5 percent increase in cargo coming into the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports this year, but the upsurge has been closer to 14 percent, said Richard B. McKenna, deputy executive director for the Marine Exchange, a nonprofit group that monitors port traffic. Sufficient labor wasn't ordered to handle such a large influx, mainly from China, and ships and cargo started piling up around the middle of June.

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