Los Angeles Business Journal

How Would the Ports Stack Up?

OP-ED: Vertically consolidated container terminals would go a long way in easing facilities’ expansion issues. By DAVID J. ALBA and RICHARD RISEMBERG Monday, September 5, 2011

In answer to the article headlined “Wider Berths” in the Aug. 15 issue, which was about the possibility of even more container terminal expansion, let’s say that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are lacking not space but imagination.

Both Los Angeles and Long Beach have long contended that their container terminals are running out of room, and that the answer is more terminals, more rail yards, more widening of freeways to put more trucks on L.A. roads.

That’s looking backwards for the answer. Looking ahead, we see a way to re-create the twin ports – and in the process create hundreds of thousands of green jobs – with green infrastructure spreading to the Antelope Valley, Inland Empire and beyond.

We urge you to “Google Earth” over the ports and look closely. You will see an ocean of container parking – and something else: rows and rows of roads. As much as 40 percent of a container terminal is occupied by flat asphalt for container-moving machines and truck access – making for the most expensive parking lots on Earth.

In March 1968, Henry J. Kaiser, steel magnate, founder of Kaiser Permanente and father of American shipbuilding, filed a patent describing the first vertically consolidated container terminal.

But 40 years ago, there were no environmental impact reports. Diesel engines had no regulations, land was cheap, paving was cheaper and the explosive growth in the industry was so profitable that an innovation like Kaiser’s simply wasn’t considered. In short, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ruled the day.

Today, the ports have several thousand acres committed to container terminals – land worth billions of dollars. This land could be put to better use – if it could be freed from its role as container parking.

The clumsy and antiquated system that juggles containers among ships, trains and trucks, clogging freeways and crushing neighborhoods, dismayed Kaiser. And jacking containers on and off three or four different vehicles during a 40-mile trip to the big rail yards inland costs importers and exporters millions of dollars.

Container chain logistics have barely changed in more than 50 years.

Instead, ships and cranes got bigger, trains got longer, and truck trips grew by millions each year. Container facilities sprawled madly. The changes were only of scale.

In Los Angeles County, tens of thousands of trucks from as far as Riverside journey between the ports with containers in tow – often empty.

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