USC Price School of Public Policy


Local Port Stakeholders Pack Town Hall

Panelists speak candidly about pressing economic issues at a Long Beach gathering of transportation officials.

By Mary E. Barton

Professor Raphael Bostic

With cargo flow down about one-third since last year, port stakeholders packed the 10th annual METRANS Town Hall meeting in Long Beach.

More than 1,000 people, including longshore workers, terminal operators, logistics providers and elected officials, attended the event. The topic was how to make the San Pedro Bay ports competitive and protect high-paying local jobs.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, so let’s go to work,” said Marianne Venieris, deputy director for METRANS, the National Center for Transportation Research.

“The Decade Ahead: Jobs, Cargo Competition and You” was the theme for the recent event, which featured a presentation by economist Paul Bingham of IHS Global Insight.

Bingham and industry panelists engaged in a discussion on how the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach can meet the challenges of a reeling economy, environmental issues, the threat of an upgraded Panama Canal that would send Asian cargo to East Coast ports, and growing competition from other West Coast ports.

Bingham reassured the audience, “There is still a business cycle. It will drive us back to growth again,” but it will take time. “I’m not forecasting a return to the boom days of earlier in this decade,” he said.

The annual Town Hall meetings have been co-hosted for a decade by the METRANS Transportation Center, a partnership of USC and California State University, Long Beach. Each year, the meetings bring labor and management together in an objective forum to learn about important issues for all port stakeholders.

This year’s focus on jobs brought the meetings full circle, according to Genevieve Giuliano, senior associate dean for research at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and director of METRANS.

Each Town Hall has addressed current port issues. The inaugural meeting in 1999 addressed “Global Connectivity and Collective Responsibility for the Future” at a time when the industry scrambled to keep up with what seemed a never-ending increase in cargo. Each year the issues evolved, ranging from congestion and the environment to cargo security in the post-9/11 days.

The atmosphere was decidedly different this year.

Global Insight is forecasting the first quarter of 2009 to be the worst in “The Great Recession,” as the firm calls the current downturn.

“Has the L.A./Long Beach port complex lost its role of ‘preferred port?’ ” asked panel moderator and Cal State Long Beach economics professor Joe Magaddino. “Yes,” responded Dan Meylor of Carmichael International Service, a shipper and transportation broker. Meylor blamed recent legislation and port fees that protect against pollution, but which add to the costs for shippers.

“My phone rings off the hook with shippers looking for alternate ports,” said David Arsenault of Hyundai Merchant Marine, which operates freight-hauling ships. Patty Senecal, representing the International Warehouse Logistics Association, said East Coast ports rejoice when West Coast ports apply another fee. “They know the cargo is going to be coming their way.”

To help keep the West Coast competitive, Alan McCorkle, representing APM Terminals, asked that the various labor groups work on three issues – add their voice in Washington, understand that other ports are viable threats and accept more flexibility in the workplace. He praised the willingness of the International Longshore and Warehousemen Union Local 13 to be flexible, despite a recent six-year contract that locks in wage increases.

This year’s Town Hall marks the end of the series. Recognizing that the goals for the meetings have been met, Giuliano said that METRANS and the Center for International Trade and Transportation, the METRANS outreach arm at Cal State Long Beach, would be working with stakeholders to develop an event with broader focus.

Giuliano assured the audience that the commitment to education and to providing a neutral forum for discussion of the trade community’s most thorny and pressing issues would continue.

The METRANS Transportation Center is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the California Department of Transportation. It supports research, education and information programs aimed at solving the transportation problems of large metropolitan areas.

Photo by Robert Huizar
Paul Bingham, an economist for IHS Global Insight, addresses the transportation industry Town Hall in Long Beach.