The United States balance of trade shifted from Europe to Asia in 1981 -- and now ports and shipping companies on both coasts are fighting for that burgeoning traffic. Commerce between the United States and Asian nations rose from $164 billion in 1984 to nearly $190 billion last year, topping European trade by $39 billion, according to the Security Pacific National Bank.
The Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach have surpassed New York/New Jersey as national leaders in number of vessel arrivals (6,990 last year) and are America's largest handlers of containerized cargo. The Atlantic Coast still received a sizable share of Asian trade via the Panama Canal, however.
Rex Sherman, assistant to the president of the American Association of Port Authorities, says shorter shipping routes, innovative cargo handling systems, and use of inexpensive ground transport to inland markets increasingly favor the Pacific Coast.
Despite the Asian windfall, a study of 25 West Coast ports by Willard Price at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., shows that only six are gaining traffic each year.
``I fear for the long term,'' Dr. Price says. ``The smaller ports are losing their share of net growth. Ultimately just two or three major load centers may survive -- Los Angeles/Long Beach, Seattle/Tacoma, with a little something for Portland, and perhaps the Bay Area.''
Some 75 to 90 percent of the cargo that goes through US ports today is shipped in large container vans for easy transfer. Until recently, vans were carried as far as possible by water, but lower rates caused by deregulation of railroads and trucking have made land transport attractive.
In 1979, American President Line of Oakland, Calif., pioneered the use of railroad flat cars to carry containers inland. Five years later this carrier devised a railroad car for double stacks of containers, cutting shipping costs about 30 percent.
As a result, ports are no longer limited to serving just their immediate areas, but huge investments in specialized equipment and easy access to rail and trucking connections are required to attract intermodal business.
Double-stack railroad cars immediately piqued the interest of the Port of Seattle. ``We tried to sell the railroads on the new technology and when they weren't interested we said, `We'll do it ourselves,' '' says William Anschutz, public information officer at the port.
The Burlington Northern line ultimately invested in double-stack cars and now runs them nonstop to Chicago six days a week. The service is offered through a unique joint agreement by which the Port of Seattle provides creative marketing, container booking, billing, and cargo tracking via its extensive computer system.
Seattle is 1 days closer to Asia than southern California is (officials call this the ``Seattle Short Cut'') and has become the second-busiest container port on the West Coast. Up to 80 percent of its freight travels to the Midwest and East Coast.
Throughout Washington state, foreign trade generates an estimated $3.6 billion annually and more than 350,000 jobs.
Still, southern California's Long Beach and Los Angeles, which operate independently on San Pedro Bay, have a real edge by virtue of their population base (12 million, compared with 2 million for Seattle), which provides a ready market for more than 60 percent of their imports.
Long Beach took an early lead when oil was discovered on its property in 1931. Oil revenues financed a dazzling array of capital improvements for the next 34 years, and land subsidence from the pumping of oil lowered the harbor floor 30 feet to make it America's deepest port.
Los Angeles, which has more land than its oil-rich neighbor, has marketed ample dock space to become America's foremost auto importer, the leader in net income ($48.75 million in 1985), and the second-busiest US cruise ship port after Miami.
Combined, these ports generate more than $10.5 billion in economic activity annually and about 337,000 jobs.
San Francisco, which led California until after World War II, is hampered by a lack of land and fell behind rapidly when the state's population shifted to the south. Neighboring Oakland has a good land base and excellent rail and trucking connections, but it appears to be losing ground for want of population. Even American President Lines, headquartered in Oakland, has eliminated Oakland as a port of call on one of its routes.
Until last year, Portland was the largest importer of foreign cars and remains in second place. As a shipping point for the world's largest grain producers, along with other farm products and lumber, Portland is one of the few US ports with a favorable balance of trade. Last year it generated $4.12 billion in exports, $3.63 billion in imports, an estimated $700 million in payrolls, and some 34,000 jobs.
Also moving to the fore is Tacoma, which recently lured Sealand away from Seattle. Tacoma established the West Coast's first on-dock intermodal yard in 1981 and is developing 2,400 acres of industrial tide flat and ultramodern deepwater facilities. It posted $10.12 million in net income last year.
Smaller harbors are increasingly reduced to the status of feeder or specialty ports as major shipping lines bypass them in favor of these centralized load centers. Typical is Bellingham, Wash., with just 34 full time-employees, which lost its aluminum trade to the container ship handlers.
But Bellingham has taken advantage of its location near the Canadian border by building an international air terminal and is exploring creation of free-trade zones and bulk cargo terminals.
Meanwhile, Long Beach and Los Angeles are teaming up to build a $54 million intermodal transfer facility, and may cooperate on other ventures.
Overall US Pacific trade has been increasing at an annual rate of 16 percent for the last five years. Even with extensive redevelopment, Long Beach and Los Angeles estimate they will be some 73 million tons short in handling cargo expected at their harbor by the year 2020.