Baja Humbug!

The Mexican government, with the backing of a number of major shipping and freight concerns, is working on plans to build a massive container port about 120 miles south of Tijuana. That’s just about equal to the distance between, let’s say, Sacramento and San Jose, or between Los Angeles and San Diego. That means that the proposed complex will be pretty close to the U.S.- Mexican border. When tentative plans for container port development in Mexico were first revealed, LA/Long Beach port officials discounted these facilities as a threat to their ports. A million, maybe two million TEUs a year at most they figured, but those minimal amounts wouldn’t affect the state’s economy, or the job market. Nothing to worry about. That slight drain, they felt, might even relieve some of the congestion and air pollution now troubling the Los Angeles and Long Beach residents.

Now we’re hearing from Mexican port officials that the new port will include 20 berths for container ships. 20 berths, however, doesn’t sound as though those major shipping and freight concerns are thinking in terms of just one or two million TEUs a year. Mexican Port and Merchant Marine Coordinator Cesar Reyes Roel just announced that plans call for the new port to handle as much cargo as the LA/Long Beach ports now handle, and that a new Baja city would be linked to the U.S. by a 180-mile long railroad. The driving forces behind this optimistic planning are:

• The “surprising and consistent” growth in Asian maritime cargo to North America.
• The increasing delays at LA/Long Beach during the peak seasons.
• The projected 12% to 18% increase over 2004 volumes for LA/Long Beach in 2005.
• The commitment made by Hutchison Whampoa, Ltd. to the development of at least three new terminals on Mexico’s West Coast.
• The rapid approval of Kansas City Southern’s application for authority to control the Tex Mex Railway and the U.S. portion of the International Rail Bridge at Laredo.

Strange as it seems, some LA/Long Beach port officials still doubt that this 20-berth complex could duplicate the seven million cargo containers handled annually North of the border. “We think it’s ambitious”, was the nonchalant comment of one LA spokesman. But hearken back to the halcyon days of November and December, if you will, when incoming vessels were treading water in Coast Guard “drift boxes” for up to two weeks while awaiting berthing assignments at the complex. At an operational cost of $ 50,000 a day, do you suppose these shipping lines would think twice about diverting to a port managed by the Hutchison people? They’ll change course in a heartbeat. Didn’t unexpected conditions force more than 100 vessels to divert during last year’s peak season?

Knowing that expansion at the two ports is limited by land constraints, environmental restrictions and backed-up roads and rail lines, officials are preparing for this year’s crunch by studying ways to “speed up” cargo movement in the LA/Long Beach areas. Without even consulting the truckers, the officials have mandated extended nighttime and weekend gate operations at the truckers expense. As long as the drivers are underpaid, the thinking goes, let’s require them to dig even deeper for daytime pickups. Is that supposed to make sense? Let’s see if the truckers buy into this brainstorm.