Are LA’s ports falling behind?
On Tuesday, June 2, KPCC & AirTalk hosted the AT30 event “The future of LA’s ports” aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where Larry Mantle and his guests discussed the possible trajectories, challenges, and impacts of California’s ports, specifically the Port of LA and the Port of Long Beach. Panelists, ranging from shipping CEOs to union leaders to environmentalists, included Jon Slangerup, Nick Weiner, Bobby Olvera, Jr., Goetz Wolff, Dave Arian, Morgan Wyenn, and T.L. Garrett.
"If we're going to make it in the age of modernization, we have to change the entire infrastructure." -T.L. Garrett, Vice President, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association in Long Beach
The Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex is the nation’s busiest container port, handling about 43 percent of goods entering the United States and about 27 percent of exports. Though the twin ports are the two largest in the country, the number of imports they handle have been dropping recently.
Airtalk host Larry Mantle brought together a panel of experts and port leadership to discuss the recent changes.
The reason for the decline? Massive change in the way shippers are moving goods and the increased volume of shipments. That, coupled with the slow rate of change, has created inefficiencies in Southern California ports’ systems.
So what’s the current state of the ports, and what are the issues?
- Bigger ships, more cargo: Modernization in the industry has meant larger ships and more cargo are coming to California’s shores, but the ports haven’t made many changes to their infrastructure to meet them. That’s made it difficult for the trucking industry to move cargo from an already cramped dock. “Big ships fundamentally changed everything,” said Port of Long Beach CEO John Slangerup, “and we haven’t responded holistically yet. We’ve been preparing for years for this and we have invested billions of dollars to do it.” There is currently no concrete plan for when changes will be made.
- New competition and more pressure. Other ports, like the Port of Shanghai, have been modernizing much more quickly and efficiently, which helped China leapfrog the U.S. to become the world's largest trading nation in 2012.
- Slowed progress. “Shipping lines are like UPS. We don't own boxes, but it's our job to deliver on time,” said. T.L. Garrett, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, adding that the modernization process of these two ports intended to expedite shipping is moving at too slow a pace: “It’s ever-ongoing in both of these ports," he said. "They continue to evolve, but some of the processes take an exceedingly long time. There are projects that, by the time they’re actually constructed, some of the technologies are already obsolete.”
- Expansion’s effects on the public. “Though a port is a business and needs to operate as a business, it is more important to consider the needs of the community, says Dave Arian, Vice President of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission. “There’s more to the port than just moving cargo. A port is a public entity with responsibility to the public.” Neighboring communities will see the change in the ports’ process in the form of more congested streets and increased pollution, said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Morgan Wyenn. As the port pushes to expand, it runs into the needs of the surrounding communities.
- Exhausted truckers. "I've seen too many paychecks for too many drivers where they work 60-70 hrs/week and bring home $100," said Nick Weiner, campaign director for Justice for Port Drivers/Teamsters Port Division. As the ports are overwhelmed with cargo, truckers bear the brunt, often waiting in line for hours for a load. Since they’re paid by the haul, not by the hour, their take-home pay can by miniscule. “I heard a stat once... that 20 percent of port truckers leave every year because they can’t make a living nationally,” said Arian.
Workers at the port say the complex still holds an advantage over its competitors, with more capacity to deal with the new, bigger ships than ports on the East Coast.
“Despite these issues, we're still faster and quicker in the Port of L.A. than anywhere in the U.S.,” said Bobby Olvera, Jr., president of the Local 13 of the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU13), which represents 7,000 members in the Southern California area.
Problems with modernization are not unique to Southern California, and ports around the world are having to find ways to meet the calls and demands of these large ships.
And though neither of the the port of Long Beach nor L.A. has plans to completely reinvent their aging infrastructure, they are taking smaller steps towards modernization. Those include the introduction of what boosters call the most technologically-advanced crane training program in U.S. to our coastline, said Olvera.
"We're still the best at what we do. You pick a ship, a cargo, I'll bring my guys and you bring yours...we're going to do better,” said Olvera. "If we had the tools, training, and bodies that we need, we'd have nothing to fear."
Jon Slangerup, president and CEO of the Port of Long Beach
Nick Weiner, campaign director for Justice for Port Drivers/Teamsters Port Division
Bobby Olvera, Jr., president of the Local 13 of the International Longshore Warehouse Union, which represents 7,000 members in the Southern California area
Goetz Wolff, lecturer of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Dave Arian, vice president of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which oversees the Port of Los Angeles
Morgan Wyenn, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council
T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association in Long Beach
This event is part of the AirTalk 30th anniversary tour.