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Night is right for moving freight

Times Staff Writer

An effort to ease daytime traffic at Southern California’s major ports is working better than anyone imagined, shifting 40% of freight movements away from peak business hours, the program’s manager will announce today.

But some say the push to move cargo at night and on Saturdays doesn’t go far enough to ease congestion and other ill effects on neighboring communities.

The “Offpeak” program was launched in July 2005 after an unexpected surge of cargo the year before left dozens of ships at a time stranded at the docks or anchored offshore as they waited to be unloaded. To avoid a repeat of the expensive traffic jam, terminal operators agreed to open their gates from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on weeknights and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

Even the Offpeak program’s supporters assumed that it would take years to persuade retailers and other shippers to move a significant amount of their activities to the night shift, even with the incentive of avoiding a $100 charge per 40-foot cargo container assessed for moving their goods during peak day-shift hours.

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So far this year, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are seeing 4 out of every 10 cargo containers move at night or on Saturdays, up about 8% from 2007 levels, said Bruce Wargo, chief executive of PierPass Inc., a nonprofit company created to run the Offpeak operation. Few ports have attempted such programs.

Some retailers, such as Los Angeles-based Megatoys, primarily use the off-peak hours from August to January, when goods are moving for holidays that run through Easter. That’s when it makes sense to absorb the cost of running a second shift and operating through the night, said Megatoys Chief Executive Charlie Woo.

“We receive more than 2,000 containers a year, but in August we begin to move twice as much as usual,” Woo said. “The ability to move at night is a really good option. Business does not stop at 5 p.m.”

Wargo said record fuel prices also helped drive up off-peak traffic this year. Although the cost of diesel has cooled a bit in recent weeks, the average price in California on Tuesday was $5.080 a gallon, or $1.825 higher than it was a year earlier, according to AAA’s daily survey.

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Still, Wargo was surprised by the scramble away from the day shift.

“There were so many people who were doubtful about this from the beginning that it was hard to maintain optimism,” Wargo said. “I’m still shocked that we are moving this much cargo at night. We have fundamentally changed how we move cargo to and from the San Pedro Bay ports.”

There has been a cost.

Although the communities surrounding the port have welcomed the reduction in daytime truck traffic, they’ve discovered an unfortunate side effect: Loud trucks disturb neighbors throughout the night.

That points out the need for more work, such as adopting quieter, alternative-fuel vehicles or electric trucks, said Craig Noble, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Such vehicles would reduce noise and air pollution.

“With electric trucks, all you hear is the tire noise,” Noble said.

The success of night delivery has helped Carson-based Watson Land Co. ride out the rocky U.S. economy.

Watson Land has been building new warehouse space or retrofitting old manufacturing buildings in the South Bay and Inland Empire to handle cargo containers that left the ports after 6 p.m. Customers include some of the nation’s biggest retailers as well as smaller regional players, said Lance Ryan, vice president of marketing and leasing.

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“You can pick up your cargo at night,” Ryan said, “but you do have to leave it somewhere.”

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ron.white@latimes.com


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