Noel Hacegaba, managing director of commercial operations at the Port of Long Beach, looks at the harbor on a recent sunny morning as hulking cargo ships sit anchored, waiting to unload.
Hacegaba explains that in the past five years, ship sizes have ballooned. He points out the typical ship used to fit some 8,000 containers. Now the big ships carry 14,000 containers.
“It’s a race to see how big these ships can get, and how fast they can get big,” says Hacegaba’s colleague at the Port of Los Angeles, Mike Christensen, deputy executive director for development.
But with big ships come big problems.
Despite a report last week that said the ports had their best year since the recession, port officials say they face fierce competition and that the major change in the size of ships means increasing pressure to fund billions of dollars’ worth of improvements.
Currently, port officials say roughly 20 percent of all the cargo moving through the country goes through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles – the busiest in the nation. But without change, their share could drop.
With such massive ships, the port has to modify its channels to be deeper, wider and clear higher stacks – and that costs big money.
The Port of Long Beach invested $1.3 billion for a new Middle Harbor terminal that has taller bridges, wider channels and deeper berths to accommodate the mega-ships.
Improvements at the Port of Los Angeles include a $510 million expansion of a TraPac terminal and a new $155 million rail yard project that aims to reduce truck traffic on the 110 and 710 freeways.
Complicating things even more is that companies are forming alliances to fill every available spot in and on the ship with containers, explained Jon Slangerup, chief executive at the Port of Long Beach. Now, workers must unload a bigger, more complicated set of containers.
“It really is like a basket of Easter eggs,” Slangerup said. “This industry, at a large scale, is going to have to deal with this randomness.”
ROBOTS READY TO TAKE OVER
With more containers on every ship, there’s also a push to increase how efficiently the containers are stacked, said Lee Peterson, a Port of Long Beach spokesman.
“It makes it more necessary to be more organized in how the containers are coming off the ship and coming back on the ship,” he said.
To prepare for bigger stacks, officials are moving toward terminals with more robotics.
Peterson said Long Beach’s Middle Harbor will be a fully automated terminal, meaning much of the loading and unloading of containers will be done with robots.
Arley Baker, Port of Los Angeles spokesman, said that when the TraPac terminal is completed, between half and two-thirds of the terminal will be automated.
In the new age, some dockworkers will focus on manning cranes that place containers on truck chassis.
CARGO TRAINS TAKE THE LOW ROAD
Most cargo in the area’s ports get off a ship and onto a truck. But about a third of it goes underground – temporarily.
Until recent years, freight cargo left the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and traveled over more than 200 train crossings in south Los Angeles County before connecting with the transcontinental rail network, according to John Doherty, chief executive officer of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.
Now, the containers zip along a 20-mile freight rail expressway under six cities in south Los Angeles. Ten miles of that is a 33-foot-deep, 50-foot-wide trench dug into the ground and covered with concrete bars.
Said Doherty: “It got goods out of sight, out of mind.”