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Asia Trade Strains Port

by David Armstrong, Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 2006

New U.S. maritime chief pays a visit to Oakland,
where bustling traffic points to need for expansion

Driven by surging trade with Asia that is approaching double-digit growth this year, the Port of Oakland -- one of the country's prime gateways for ocean shipping to and from Asia -- is feeling a new sense of urgency about development projects that it hopes will expand its capacity to handle all that new business.

On Tuesday, port officials got the ear of someone who might be able to help them realize their growth plans: Sean Connaughton, the newly appointed administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration.

Connaughton, a Coast Guard veteran and lawyer who has been in his post six weeks, stopped by Oakland on a get-acquainted tour of the nation's 10 busiest ports, a day after visiting Los Angeles/Long Beach and a day before jetting off to Seattle/Tacoma.

Oakland, easily Northern California's largest seaport, is the fourth-largest cargo container port in the United States -- and the port has big plans for streamlining intermodal links between cargo ships, railroads and trucks, cutting the pollution that accompanies growth, and dredging the harbor to a depth of 50 feet from the present 47 feet to be able to handle the next generation of supersize, ocean-going cargo container ships.

Connaughton, who received a quick-step tour of the roughly 800-acre seaport from director of engineering Jerry Serventi, didn't tip his hand regarding what projects he might decide to back but said the needs of the nation's ports posed by their growth spurt are very real.

"The challenge we face is the enormous growth in trade, and that is being driven by U.S.-Asia trade," Connaughton said. "We have to be able to handle that trade. The West Coast ports handle more than 50 percent of all imports. They are really gateways for the rest of the country.

"Ports like this one are important to the economies of their localities, but they are really more than that -- they are national assets," he said.

The Port of Oakland, which operates both the seaport and Oakland International Airport, functions as an independent department of the city of Oakland. It receives 99 percent of cargo containers that arrive in the Bay Area by sea, filled with footwear, apparel and toys from China, Japan and other Asian trading nations. California farm produce, machinery and computers go the other way, toward Asia, also from Oakland.

Although the Port of Oakland is hemmed in physically by a spaghetti-tangle of freeways, the Bay Bridge and of course the shoreline, it has grown in recent years by taking over former military land adjacent to the historic port.

The former U.S. Army base there, for example, has been converted into a rail yard by the port. Many seaborne imports travel far beyond California, to the Midwest, often by rail. Historically, Southern California ports have had an advantage over Oakland by virtue of having excellent rail links to the Midwest, without having to climb over the mountains of Colorado.

Oakland has to upgrade its rail facilities merely to stay in the game, emphasized port spokesman Robert Bernardo.

Connaughton said he is impressed by the initiative and commercial savvy the port showed by expanding its rail capacity. "Look there, they are showing their capacity to double-stack containers," he said, as the shuttle bus transporting him around the port passed a rail yard. Later, he climbed out of the bus to crane his neck at a megaship stacked with 20-foot-long metal containers at dockside in the Hanjin marine terminal.

In recent years, the tide of imports has caused ports, especially in Southern California, to develop long lines of trucks waiting to pick up cargo, causing delays in delivery to vendors -- and increasing the ultimate cost of goods to consumers.

"The Department of Transportation is focusing on the issue of congestion," he said, "whether it's in the seaports, on rail lines, on the highway, on commuter routes. We want to know: What can we do? What degree of federal leadership can help us handle congestion?"

Connaughton noted that ports, environmental authorities and the shipping industry have also begun to work on ways to cut the emission of diesel fumes and other pollutants from cranes, ships and the idling vehicles of independent truckers. Some vehicles have converted to natural gas, he said, which burns cleaner.

Security at the nation's seaports is also a concern, although this is an issue handled chiefly by the Department of Homeland Security.

New regulations coming into effect late this year will require truck drivers, who have wide access to port facilities, to provide a photo identification to enter the ports. Many truckers -- up to 50 percent by some estimates -- are undocumented immigrants, mostly Latino, who could lose their jobs or resist the regulations.

"When you drill down on security, the better -- you make your port more secure," said port spokesman Bernardo. "On the other hand, when the workforce is resistant to the measures, which they feel are intrusive on their privacy, you might see a strike or a work stoppage.

"You don't want that. We saw what happened in 2002, when West Coast ports were shut down" by an employer lockout, Bernardo said. "That costs the economy lots of money."

Surge in cargo

* 20-foot equivalent unit, a standard measurement for cargo
Source: Port of Oakland

Related Pages:
1997 Container Shipping Report by Port of Lewiston
2002 Container Shipping Report by Port of Portland

David Armstrong
Asia Trade Strains Port
San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 2006

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