Jumping On The Banned Wagon?

“Pier Pressure” was the title we gave to our Nov. 12th, 2004 commentary. It began like this:

“Because of cargo delays, traffic congestion, air pollution and a shortage of longshore workers, the marine terminal operators’ group in LA/Long Beach, known as PierPass, Inc., proposed to initiate a program calling for extended gate hours. This plan, outlined this past August, gained the approval of the Federal Maritime Commission and was intended to encourage the movement of exports and imports during off-peak hours making it possible for trucks to move faster over less crowded highways. The plan called for one extended gate per month to be phased in for five consecutive months. As a further inducement, PierPass proposed to impose a fee, or a fine, of $ 20 per TEU on any importer or exporter who preferred to move cargo during the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The program was to go into effect on November 1st …”

“Late in September, however, the target date of November 1st had to be moved back a few months because the difficulties that inspired this good sounding idea in the first place, delays and a shortage of longshore labor, also turned out to be the hangups which stood in the way of the idea’s implementation …”

“Time to do some more math. PierPass, Inc. proposes to collect the fees and administer the program, and along with an advisory committee from the shipper and transportation community, PierPass will evaluate the program to determine if the fees being collected cover the true costs incurred by terminal operators for running extended gates. Here’s where it gets tricky. More truckers conforming produce less fees, right? More truckers conforming require more gates, right? More gates in operation require more money, right? So where’s the money for the increasing cost of gate operations coming from if fewer fees are being collected from truckers?”

[How naive of us to think that PierPass proponents hadn’t thought of all this at the outset. They anticipated the money problem, and they were prepared to deal with it. A steady increase in fees, or fines, is all that it would take, and once the program was in effect there’d be nothing anyone could do about it. They knew all that.]

They also knew that the PierPass initiative was just another band-aid to be applied until a real cure was found for the ailment they could be preventing. What they didn’t seem to understand was that as time ran out and container volumes increased, concerned politicians would butt in.

The Press-Enterprise, on August 5th, interviewed officials of the six Southern California counties being affected by port-induced traffic congestion and found that some transportation advocates are renewing a call to ban most trucks from freeways during daylight hours to ease commuter woes. Riverside City Councilman Steve Adams, for example, calls for reviving measures that successfully prevented gridlock during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. His plan is an extension of the desperate PierPass initiative and calls for an outright ban of truck traffic during daylight hours. But such an outright ban is causing concern in many quarters.

Whether an effort the size of the Olympics can be replicated in 2006 is debatable, however, given the increase in population and most commuters’ insistence on driving alone in their own vehicles.

“That was for two weeks, and it took a year to plan,” said Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the California Trucking Association, adding that she has seen some version of this idea raised four times in the past 15 years but the efforts have always failed because interstate trucking on federal highways is beyond local control.

Hundreds of city ordinances around the state prevent trucks from entering certain areas at night, she said, and compressing all trucking that now is done in a 24-hour period into eight hours would make for a very noisy night, with truckers bearing the brunt of the criticism, Ms. Williams added.

“Most businesses cannot afford to pay people to work around the clock. The plan would triple transportation costs to small businesses because companies would have to pay overtime or hire more employees to receive shipments when the business otherwise would be closed,” she said.

“You’re going to ask a mom-and-pop grocery store to come to work at 9 p.m. to get their goods?” she asked. “The world isn’t Wal-Mart. Not everybody is open 24 hours.”

Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., agreed, saying opposition from the business community, combined with likely complaints of nighttime noise from homeowners living near freeways or business districts, would likely thwart a daytime truck ban.

Trucking officials also say that keeping trucks off the road during the day would create noise problems at night for people who live near businesses. Others say removing trucks from the freeways could just make room for more cars unless state leaders make it more expensive to drive during peak hours through some sort of toll or fee.

Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster expressed his doubts about the economic, pollution and practical impacts of such a daytime truck ban and also wondered if taking trucks off the freeway might encourage the use of more cars and lead to further congestion.

Officials at the San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county transportation planning agency, are also wary of a daytime truck ban, worried about its possible detrimental impacts on business. The group president, San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, said freeways need to be used more efficiently for all vehicles, including commuters, without singling out trucks.

None of this hand-wringing would take place if officials would just look beyond the traffic jams and give some thought to the real source of the problem. Last minute cargo diversion was the measure that provided relief during peak season delays, and these diversions were arranged by shipping authorities, not by port authorities. Most of this cargo, however, destined for U.S. consumers, created job opportunities in non-U.S. ports. How simple and less costly it would be if officials would just heed Mr. Mineta’s wise advice and develop the unused ports on the U.S. West Coast!

[Sooner or later this will come to pass. But why wait? The band-aids are getting expensive.]