Night gates in Southern California help prevent congestion

By Peter A. Buxbaum

When Southern California ports experienced severe congestion problems last year, many shippers diverted cargo up the coast to ports like Seattle. The fact that the ports of Seattle and Long Beach are both experiencing strong volume growth this year over last is testimony to the record-breaking year for import cargo expected this peak shipping season.

Retailers begin importing for the Christmas shopping season in July. The cargo volumes seen during this peak importing season is an indication of how retailers expect to do once the holiday shopping season gets under way. By all indications, retailers expect to do well this year.

Much of the clothing and toys imported for Christmas are manufactured in China or elsewhere in East Asia, and imported through West Coast ports. New extended hours in Southern California ports are helping alleviate past congestion problems.

“We continue to see increasing numbers every month so far this year,” says Kent Christopher, general manager, containers, at the port of Seattle.

Year-to-date numbers from January through August show inbound containerloads through up 31.6 percent over last year, according to Christopher. “We’re seeing record numbers on top of record numbers,” he says. “We expect the third and fourth quarters to be spectacular. We’ll still see double digit growth on top of last year.”

Christopher attributes the strong growth at least in part to continued diversion of cargo from Southern California ports. “A lot of companies that shifted cargo on an emergency basis in 2004 have kept using Seattle as an alternative gateway to California,” he says. “The big box retailers don’t want to get boxed out of sales if the pipeline gets shut down through Southern California. Some of them have switched traffic through the Pacific Northwest as an alternative gateway.” He also notes that Seattle’s attraction stems from the expansion of regional distribution businesses.

Art Wong, spokesperson for the port of Long Beach in Southern California doesn’t Christopher’s claims. “A fair percentage of our cargo was diverted to other West Coast ports or through the Suez Canal to East Coast ports,” he admits. “It seems that peak season importers are spreading their shipments around the country.”

Yet, Long Beach is also posting some very strong numbers, an overall increase of 20 percent during the first eight months of the year. “The economy is pretty good in the U.S.,” explains Wong. “We’re getting a lot more cargo from retail chains. That, and the increasing number of 8,000-teu ships that are calling on our port, have contributed to an increase in our market share.”

Christopher expects growth to continue steadily in Seattle. “We’ve seen growth in what we call the local market over the last five years as major distribution centers have set up locally,” he says. “We also continue to expand our labor pool in cooperation with the ILWU. Labor has certainly not had any negative impact on our harbor.”

Both ports have experienced a surprising surge in exports. “Exports have been exceptionally strong,” says Wong. “This is the best export year we’ve ever had.” Export highlights include increases in raw materials, waste paper, plastics, chemicals, machine parts, hides, and cotton.

In Seattle, outbound full containerloads were up 25 percent during the first eight months of the year. “The Japanese economy is maintaining its strength,” says Christopher. Frozen foods such as salmon, beef, French fries, and frozen vegetables are leading export growth in Seattle.

Increasing levels of exports “help the steamship lines,” Christopher notes. “It helps to have less empty boxes going back to Asia for the headhaul.”

Imports into Long Beach have included a broad range of consumer goods, with clothing and toys for end-of-year shopping leading the way, but also including home improvement goods, furniture, and autos parts, according to Wong. Congestion on the inbound side has not been