West Coast ports struggle with success

Ships bigger than prostrate skyscrapers, their decks stacked with multicolored steel boxes the size of Macktruck trailers, wait offshore -- at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day to shipping lines -- for their turn at these busy docks.

Cargo traffic has grown so heavy at the side-by-side ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in San Pedro Bay here that there are too few longshoremen to keep up with the work.

This port complex, the second busiest in the country behind the Port of New York, is the fastest-expanding port in the world. "There is every reason to suspect," says J. Ron Brinson, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, "that Long Beach and L.A. will be the busiest port complex in the world by the turn of the century."

The ships diesel in from the Far East -- Yokohama; Pusan, South Korea; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Hong Kong; Singapore -- and elsewhere around the rim of the Pacific, laden with automobiles, cameras, and television sets. They set off West toward the setting sun with cotton, so-phisticated machinery, and even rice.

For the United States, the trade across the Pacific is booming. It surpassed the transatlantic trade in 1982, and the economies of the Pacific Rim have been surging ahead ever since.

But at the same time, the economics of shipping has been shifting, putting even more cargo to port on the West Coast.

A hint of what has happened:

One of the largest importers of cargo-laden containers into the Port of New York, American President Lines, lands no ships there. The containers were, in fact, put to port in Los Angeles or Seattle, stacked two-high on trains, and carted to the New York customs district by rail to be unloaded and distributed.

Until recently, cargo generally took the all-water route. Japanese consumer goods traveled from Yokohama to New York on a 21-day voyage through the Panama Canal. Now they make the trip in 14 days by unloading on the West Coast onto faster, more-direct freight trains.

The same containers -- 20 feet long and 8 feet high and wide -- can also become truck trailers and travel the highways. The containers have made it cheaper to shift cargo from one mode of transport to another, cheaper especially than the long voyage through the Panama Canal.

Both the growth of the Pacific trade and the rise of containers for easy sea-to-rail-to-truck shipping have been a boon to Western ports. The ports here in San Pedro Bay and the Puget Sound ports of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington have prospered most.

Oakland has more container-handling facilities than any other port on the West Coast, but the San Francisco Bay ports are not growing as fast as those near Seattle and Los Angeles, where there are better rail connections.

Between them, Los Angeles and Long Beach are in the middle of spending $500 million to expand container-handling capacity and to bring a railhead within a few miles of the waterfront. Now, containers must be loaded on trucks for a 25 -mile trip to the train station near downtown Los Angeles.

In the meantime, the longshoremen's union is putting on extra part-time stevedores to speed up cargo handling. The San Pedro Bay ports have been employing about 2,600 stevedores and could use 600 or 700 more.

Although the US trade across the Pacific is larger now than the transatlantic , there are still almost four times as many long tons of cargo put ashore on the Atlantic Seaboard than on the West Coast.

But only a portion of it comes from Europe and the Mediterranean. Of roughly 130 million long tons of cargo that landed at Atlantic ports in 1983, 51 million came from the Caribbean Basin, and most of that was Venezuelan oil. Gulf ports took 111 long tons, and much of that was oil as well.

According to the US Maritime Administration, 17 percent of all waterborne imports last year traveled the so-called land bridge. They landed on one coast in containers and were shuttled by rail or truck to a be unloaded on another coast.

The great preponderance of this land-bridge traffic travels east from Pacific ports to Gulf and Atlantic ports, says Geoffrey McIntyre of the Maritime Administration's Office of Port Development. And all of it is traffic that would have taken an all-water route to its final port of call just a few years ago.

Ports are still trying to make sense out of the new economics of shipping. The Gulf ports, according to Ron Brinson, are trying to win some land-bridge traffic, expanding their market from chiefly grain and oil portage.

The South Atlantic ports such as Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., are also expanding and marketing themselves more aggressively. Shipping lines, meanwhile, are beginning to charge point-to-point rates for their customers, regardless of route or mode of transportation, and experiment with the load-center strategy of routing used by airlines and express mail services.

Several companies are also expanding their fleets substantially. US Lines is buying 12 new ships, to be completed in South Korea by the end of next year, for a round-the-world service. The ships will travel continuously east, carrying more container capacity on each ship than any other ship ever built.

Their competition is Evergreen Lines in Taiwan, which has 24 ships in round-the-world service -- 12 ships steaming in either direction.

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