L.A. and Long Beach ports see 1.6% gain in cargo traffic

Cargo traffic at the nation’s busiest seaport complex increased in January, the second straight month in which cargo levels improved at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach compared with a year earlier.

The two ports are the No. 1 and No. 2 ports in the nation for cargo containers, making them a bellwether for the strength of the U.S. economy.

Overall traffic for the two ports in January, including empty containers bound for Asia, climbed 1.6% to slightly more than 1 million containers, compared with 986,299 in January 2009.

It followed a year in which overall volume at the two ports fell 17.4% compared with 2008.

The increases were largely driven by exports, which rose by a combined 31.8% to 254,427 containers.

Much of what is exported through the ports is scrap paper and scrap metals, but experts still consider it a sign of recovery, as those materials are recycled for packaging and products made in Asian factories.

After a year in which the ports experienced their lowest volume since 2003, officials were guardedly upbeat.

“We’re still looking for flat to modest growth for the first six months of 2010,” said Phillip Sanfield, spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.

Total cargo traffic fell 2.4% at the L.A. port in January from a year earlier.

Long Beach’s performance last month was up 7.4% from January 2009.

Spokesman Art Wong cautioned that these were not robust numbers compared with the years before the recession.

“It’s encouraging, but the numbers are still relatively weak,” Wong said.

Imports at the two ports reflected that weakness. Overall, they were still down in January compared with January 2009, although the 514,230 loaded containers that arrived at the two ports represented a drop of just 0.7%.

Both ports said they were expecting stronger improvement in the February numbers, and at least one local expert was seeing anecdotal evidence of that.

John Husing, an Inland Empire economist who tracks the effect of international trade on one of the nation’s biggest warehouse and distribution networks in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, has a home that overlooks San Timoteo Canyon, one of the state’s most important historic transportation routes.

Stagecoaches used San Timoteo Canyon to get in and out of Southern California, Husing said. It was also the route used by the old Southern Pacific rail line. Now, the line is owned by Union Pacific.

During the worst months of the recession, Husing said, “there were hardly any freight trains. This month, the number seems to have tripled.”

Husing said it was a sign that retailers were finally rebuilding their product inventories after letting them drop to very low levels in late 2009.

“We are beginning to see a definite pickup,” he said. “These are some of the signals you always see when the U.S. is beginning to come out of a recession.”