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Why Trucks Won’t Yield on Drive Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In her agonizing daily commute from her Oceanside home to her job at Cal Poly Pomona, Donna Tillman routinely battles the 800-pound gorillas of Southern California freeways: big rigs.

“I drive a Toyota, and I feel like a midget among these huge trucks,” the business professor said. “You cannot see around them when you are moving from one lane to another.”

The 18-wheelers are not only big, but they also seem to be reproducing right on the roadways. On some Los Angeles area freeways, trucks account for nearly 15% of the traffic. That figure is expected to grow as international trade continues to bring a surge of cargo into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

With that in mind, Tillman asks the question that most every frustrated Southern California motorist has pondered at one time or another: Why can’t these trucks haul their loads after peak commute hours?

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“Everybody would move a lot freer if the trucks were restricted to between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.,” she said.

Tillman is not the first to suggest what seems like a simple idea for easing congestion in the mecca of freeway traffic jams. But government and private groups that have promoted the idea say it would almost be easier to achieve peace in the Middle East than to keep big rigs off the freeways at peak commute times.

The idea of after-hours truck deliveries worked well in Los Angeles during the 1984 Summer Olympics, when truckers, warehouse operators and retailers voluntarily adopted alternative schedules. But a 1990 plan by then-Mayor Tom Bradley to ban trucks from city streets during rush hours died after it ran afoul of federal interstate commerce laws.

Today, concerns over worsening traffic delays are so serious that researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute are studying the idea of building an underground freight pipeline system that would carry cargo on a subterranean conveyor belt between Dallas and Laredo.

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Because of burgeoning traffic problems, many large businesses, such as Wal-Mart and Sears, already have most of their goods delivered in the evening or early morning hours.

But at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach--the nation’s busiest port complex--most business is done between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Truckers begin to line up at dawn, waiting for the terminal gates to open at 8 a.m. to pick up their cargo. About 5 p.m., the last deliveries are loaded onto outbound trucks.

Such a schedule puts about 34,000 big rigs on Southern California’s overburdened freeways smack in the middle of peak commute hours. The number of trucks rolling in and out of the ports is expected to jump to nearly 92,000 by 2020.

To shift those deliveries to off-peak hours would require new work schedules for terminal operators, truck drivers and warehouse workers--changes that in most cases would mean overtime wages. None of the businesses involved with the delivery of port cargo are eager to pay such higher wages.

“It’s a matter of economics at this point,” said Joan Wood, a project manager at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The unions that represent terminal workers and truckers say they would be happy to work the later shifts--at a higher hourly wage. The problem, they say, is that there is no demand for after-hour deliveries, because most inland warehouses that accept the cargo close between 5 and 6 p.m.

“It doesn’t make sense to have a driver pick up a shipment [after hours] and then park,” said Warren Hoemann, vice president of the California Truckers Assn.

Off-Hours Deliveries Could Prove Costly

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Warehouse owners say they sympathize with the plight of traffic-weary motorists, but they insist that they cannot afford to pay workers to accept late-night or early-morning deliveries.

“It’s not possible to open at that time, because of the expense,” said Ted Shayan, president of Concord Enterprises, a general merchandise warehouse in Vernon. He said it would cost him an additional $10,000 a day to accept late-night deliveries.

He added that truckers cannot simply park their trailers on the streets until the warehouses open in the morning, because the cargo would be easy pickings for thieves.

Other efforts are underway, however, to ease the increasing truck traffic from the ports.

The $2.4-billion Alameda Corridor, a high-speed railway from the ports to downtown Los Angeles, is scheduled to open later this year. Last year, the California Department of Transportation launched a $400-million overhaul of the Long Beach Freeway, one of the most heavily used truck routes in the region. The Southern California Assn. of Governments is promoting the construction of several truck-only lanes along some of the busiest freeways.

But with predictions that truck traffic will nearly triple by 2020, several groups, including the MTA and the governments association, say much more must be done to avert expanding gridlock.

In its 2000 annual report to the state Legislature, the California Transportation Commission called on truckers, shippers, and warehouse and terminal operators to expand their hours of operation.

“A key factor in mitigating this congestion is spreading the demand for port access over a greater portion of the 24-hour day,” the report states.

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Shipping Coalition Tackles Efficiency

A group of shippers, manufacturers and other business groups formed a coalition in 2000 to make cargo deliveries in California more reliable and efficient. The group, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, includes such big-name manufacturers as Hewlett-Packard, Nike and the Gap.

Last year, coalition representatives promoted before a congressional subcommittee the idea of extending truck delivery hours.

Alan Atkinson, the coalition’s legislative representative, said the idea would be difficult to implement because it would require a “cultural change along the entire supply chain.”

But if businesses do not voluntarily adopt new schedules, he said, increasing freeway delays could force state and federal lawmakers to legislate such changes.

It may take a while, but Philip Wright, vice president of Zim Container Service, a terminal operator at the Port of Long Beach, said change is inevitable.

“We are a stubborn group of individuals,” he said. But he added: “In the long term, it’s not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ we change the way we operate.”

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If you have questions, comments or story ideas regarding driving or traffic in Southern California, send an e-mail to behindthewheel@ latimes.com.


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