West Coast Ports look to automation to stay on top

An automated future is part of an efficiency plan at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. These ports have been losing market share for nearly a decade to rivals in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Savannah, Georgia where it takes four days or less to unload a ship compared to as many as six days in Southern California.

According to a recent BloombergBusiness report, the Port of Los Angeles recently put an automated terminal into service, and along with the Port of Long Beach is spending $3.7 billion to boost capacity and unravel bottlenecks. Additionally, a $1 billion replacement is being built for the 47-year-old Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is too low for today’s mega-vessels.

Long Beach and Los Angeles ports moved $470 billion in cargo last year. Still, their market share has been slowly eroding since 2006 from 35.5 percent of all U.S. cargo nine years ago to 32.8 percent today.

Another threat to the West Coast ports will arrive next year when new locks and a deeper channel will give the Panama Canal room to handle big ships from Asia that want to bypass the West Coast to get to the eastern U.S. Plans are under way at may East Coast ports to accommodate the larger ships.

At the Port of Savannah, shipments have grown 10 percent or more for 18 out of the past 24 months. At the Port of Prince Rupert, it was up 58.7 percent, after three straight months of double-digit expansion.

The risk of port congestion was reinforced earlier this year during a contract-negotiations standoff between the dockworkers’ union and shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast. From November through February, as many as 35 ships were stranded in San Pedro Bay causing costly delays. Operations largely returned to normal after a tentative contract was brokered in February.

Although damage was done to shippers’ confidence in the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, West Coast port officials are touting the increased efficiencies that automation is delivering.