Running Aground

Sunday’s LA TIMES published an article under the headline, “Image Woes Shrink Traffic at Port”. It was written by Ronald D. White, a Times Staff Writer, and he really did his homework. His very first line is an attention-getter:

“Five years after reestablishing itself as the nation’s busiest international trade gateway, the Port of Los Angeles seems to have run aground.” Beautiful. His further observations also have clout.

“But business is sinking at L.A.’s port, down nearly 2% this year, because of a serious image problem created partly by last year’s record congestion, which also affected the Long Beach port, and the 2002 labor dispute that shut down West Coast harbors for 11 days.

“In addition, the Los Angeles port faces a litany of other problems, observers say. These include internal disarray, unhappy neighbors and delays in dredging and wharf construction projects …”

“Bruce E. Seaton, who became the Los Angeles port’s acting executive director … acknowledged the rough waters. ‘We are obviously trying to convince customers to come back,’ Seaton said. ‘Customers are looking for reliability, and they don’t want to see another meltdown.’

“Much is at stake, port boosters say. The Southern California port complex, the nation’s largest, is an economic growth machine that generates billions of dollars in lease and tax revenue each year and directly or indirectly supports 407,000 jobs, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. …”

“It is the ‘one blue-collar sector for which Southern California has a clear-cut competitive advantage vis-a-vis the rest of the United States,’ said John Husing, an Inland Empire economist specializing in trade issues. ‘The jobs processing this cargo are ours … if we can accommodate the rising volume of trade.’

“It’s been more than a decade since the Los Angeles port experienced a drop in cargo volume. …”

“In 2004, an unexpected flood of goods — mostly from China — caught the ports unprepared. There weren’t enough dock workers to load and unload ships, which piled up more than 90 deep and were forced to wait as long as a week to disgorge their containers.

“Cargo terminals and railroads were also overwhelmed. Ships were diverted to other ports, which were happy to get the business.

“The local ports responded by hiring thousands of workers, and railroads added new equipment. And the ports’ terminals, which are run independently, recently began operating longer hours.

“But critics say the Los Angeles port has other difficulties.

“It lacks a firm sense of direction, they say, in contrast to the 1990s, when the port trailed neighbor Long Beach and knew what it wanted to be: the busiest in the nation. …”

“Seaton said the port was working to put a new image before shipping lines, manufacturers, retailers and logistics experts who advise clients on how best to ship their goods.

“‘Last fall, they saw all those ships at anchor,’ Seaton said. ‘You look out there right now and the ships have all the gangs they need and are (unloaded) as quickly as they need to be.’

“Despite improvements at the local ports, big developments and double-digit traffic increases are being trumpeted by competing harbors.

“‘The cargo is on ships, and they can go anywhere,’ Seaton said. ‘What I am hearing on the street is that (shipping lines) are looking for diversification’ — that is, sending goods to a variety of seaports instead of concentrating business in Southern California.

“Bratz doll maker Isaac Larian is among them. Larian, chief executive of MGA Entertainment Inc., said the Van Nuys company was bringing less merchandise through Los Angeles, preferring the less congested ports of Oakland and Seattle.

“‘In 2005, we have huge orders from our customers and we need to be able to fill them,’ Larian said. ‘I don’t have faith, frankly, that L.A. can handle it. We need to see action. We need to see that the bureaucracy and the politics are not there. We need to see that things have changed.’…”

Mr. White, as an outsider, sees and acknowledges much of what the insiders fail to perceive … or refuse to perceive. It could simply be a case of being unable “to see the forest for the trees ”, or it could be that the authoritative and unintimidated Mr. Larian is in a position to tell it like it is. He doesn’t have faith in the port, he said, and he places the blame on the bureaucracy and the politics. He cites the necessity of change. Good for him. Throwing a bone to him, like the PierPASS program, wouldn’t fool a man like Mr. Larian. The apparent and temporary relief at the port coincides with the drop in cargo volume, and those directly concerned, like Mr. Larian, as well as outsiders like Mr. White, the author of the LA Times article, recognize the charade and aren’t about to be taken in by tongue-in-cheek Press Releases.

Internal disarray … unhappy neighbors … customers seeking reliability and fearful of another meltdown … an unprepared port in 2004 … overwhelmed cargo terminals and railroads … ship diversions to other ports … no firm sense of direction … double-digit traffic increases … shipping lines being forced to diversify to less congested ports … bureaucracy and politics, etc., etc. And the only response the port authorities offer for these unbearable conditions is … PierPASS?

Mr. White didn’t miss much in his report and his analogy to a ship running aground is an appropriate one. If the port fails to make changes, however, as Mr. Larian has already advised, the Port of LA, having already “run aground”, will soon be breaking up on the rocks of stubbornness.