Tuesday, August 10, 2010

CityWatchLA - Port of LA: A Lesson in Contradictions

CityWatch, Aug 6, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 62

To look at the Port of Los Angeles from deep inside is to gaze upon the character of the City of Los Angeles. I say this not because I've been reading Nietzsche, but because I just returned from a tour of the Port, one where I experienced profound contrasts in scale, behavior, and purpose. Theoretical discussions of shipping, transportation, the environment and the economy went from theoretical to tangible and all iActive Imaget took was a three hour boat tour.

I've long participated in advocacy work that involves reviews of bridges such as the Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge, of environmental issues related to trucking on the 710, of development issues and the impact on surrounding communities and of the economic impact of LA's commitment to moving America's goods.

Those conversations inevitably include references to the Port of Los Angeles and its connection to the city, the region, and the nation.

But for all the expert testimony, mountains of technical documents and PowerPoint presentations, nothing communicates the nature and the size of the Port of Los Angeles like standing in the shadow of a Container Ship that stretches out of sight, or sailing under the Vincent Thomas Bridge and looking up at a procession of trucks moving like ants, or watching a never, ever ending train loaded with shipping containers move across the Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge.

My wife and I toured the Port with a team from Caltrans that included engineers responsible for everything from environmental review, design, bridges, highways, access, funding, and regional connectivity.

We've long worked with Caltrans and it was from within this wide variety of perspectives that the term "economies of scale" took on a new meaning. But most of all, we encountered some simple contrasts that was quite revealing about the Port as well as the City of Los Angeles.

1) From our vantage point aboard the Port of LA's Angelina II, we looked to one side and watched a huge ship unloading brand new automobiles imported from overseas. The cars were shiny, the ship was beautiful, the operation of unloading was seamless.

To the other side of the channel, mountains of shredded scrap metal, salvaged from discarded automobiles, was prodded and pushed by a couple of bulldozers, part of an operation that sorts and shreds waste material and ships it back overseas so that it can be recycled and repurposed and sold to us again, perhaps as the shiny vehicles on the other side of the channel.

The majority of the shipping containers that leave the Port of LA leave empty, but of those that hold a cargo, apparently the balance of trade consists of brand new product arriving and scrap material being returned. The contrast between what we get and what we give was daunting.

2) Container Ships are huge diesel burning power generators and even sitting motionless in the Port they need power.

To see a mega-sized extension cord hanging from a large ship is an interesting contrast in technologies and environmental commitments. Unfortunately, not all ships are enabled for Port Electric and it is an optional program, one that the Port funds in an effort to make it attractive.

The contrast between the Port's commitment to improving the Port's environmental impact and the Port's reluctance to raising the standards for the shipping partners leaves some innovations light on systemic implementation.

3) The Port has a surreal quality to it, incredible amounts of activity but at such a huge scale that it's hard to see the humans in all of the motion. They must be there, in little cabins on cranes or raising and lowering the bridge or operating the train, but they're hard to see.

So much takes places with such an emphasis on automation that from a distance, it appears that the ships are picked clean by machines. There is something awe-inspiring to watch something work so seamlessly.

Simple or complex, a well-designed system that works is a thing of beauty. Such is the Port of LA.

But once off the ships, the containers go two directions, on a train or through LA. The contrast between the high-tech unloading and the low-tech transport is what leaves much of LA feeling under siege. Freeways filled with trucks that move containers one at a time, around the clock, has an environmental and land use impact that can't be ignored.

4) An operation the size of the Port of LA must require a diplomatic corps of its own, such is the need to synchronize the many authorities, powers, agencies, and departments who have influence over everything from national security, the economy, the ocean, cross-country shipping and local neighborhood land use.

The relationships that must work in order for the Port of LA to move so smoothly is an invisible thing of beauty.

But by contrast, a simple proposal to implement a container fee to offset environmental impact expenses was stymied for fear of losing business to Oakland and Seattle.

The fact that LA is held back because of a lack of synchronicity with west coast partners in shipping is an obstacle that must be overcome.

To pretend to understand all of the complexities of the Port of Los Angeles after a simple boat tour is simplistic, but the value of framing the discussion from within the Port is priceless.

Perhaps all discussions and debates should start with a walk, a bike ride, or a boat tour. It's worth a try!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

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