Port of Long Beach Highlights Dredging Project in T&I’s WRDA Hearing

Mario Cordero, Executive Director of the Port of Long Beach (POLB), was the port representative on the House Water Resources Subcommittee’s February 8 hearing. This hearing covered many topics within WRDA, the biennial, bipartisan water authorization bill. While the hearing featured a variety of tribal and interest group witnesses, this article focuses on Cordero’s comments within the hearing, while bringing in themes from his State of the Port, broadcast on Wednesday, February 9, and contextualizing it with appropriate background information about the monolithic (and nationally significant) Southern California port complex.

Deep draft navigation project

One of Cordero’s main purposes at the hearing was to explain and advocate for the deep draft navigation project at the POLB – most questions aimed at Cordero asked about this. The project has been approved by the Army Corps and is now waiting for federal funding; POLB is hoping to have this dredging funded in WRDA 2022, so Cordero also served the project’s spokesman.

The largest container ship in the world has a 24,000 TEU capacity. In the hearing, Cordero noted that while the POLB can handle 16,000, 18,000, and even 20,000 TEU vessels, the harbor depth is not suitable for anything larger. While he said that the port accommodated a 24,000 TEU vessel last year, he noted that the vessel’s draft (i.e., the height between the water line and the bottom of the hull) was too large to move into the harbor, so they needed to transfer the cargo to a smaller vessel, which then went into harbor and was unloaded.

The Army Corp’s complete list of POLB dredging locations and depths is here. While the project will only lower the seafloor by a few feet (the main channel approach will be dredged from -76 feet to -80 feet), each additional foot of water depth (and each additional foot of vessel draft) can equate to thousands of dollars of cargo per ship. Under existing water depths, some ships can only enter the POLB when light-loaded, or when a vessel carries less than its capacity to meet draft requirements. In his written testimony, Cordero wrote that only under ideal conditions can the POLB accommodate liquid bulk ships with a maximum 69-foot draft. Many liquid bulk ships draft 70 feet when fully loaded. By dredging the channel to 80 feet, port capacity will be greatly expanded.

Benefits to the deeper draft project include lower emissions from less idling and less transferring of cargo to smaller ships when 20,000+ TEU vessels use the port, greater safety of crews due to greater clearance between vessel hulls and the seafloor, and improved operational efficiency for the largest TEU vessels.

Rail improvements

In both the hearing and the state of the port address, Cordero thanked MARAD for the recently announced $52.3 million grant to improve their on-dock rail facility. This will reconfigure and expand the centralized Pier B railyard to stage inbound and outbound trains up to 2 miles long. Currently, 28 percent of cargo moved in and out of the port is by rail, and with these infrastructure improvements, the POLB aims to make this 35 percent.

24/7 operations

Cordero also spoke about the expanding operating hours in both the hearing and the address. This has been a hot-button topic regarding the supply chain issues for a few months now, with many Representatives in previous hearings calling for 24/7 port operations to clear up bottlenecks (like in this June T&I hearing). However, Cordero noted that while one terminal within the POLB has been doing a 24/7 pilot program, warehousing and intermodal connections also need to adjust their schedules in order for the around-the-clock operations to make a real difference. Nevertheless, he noted that our Chinese trading partners are already operating 24/7, so we must do the same to keep pace.

Background on the San Pedro Bay Ports

If you’ve watched any supply chain-related hearings in the past year, Mario Cordero and Eugene Seroka will be familiar names: as the Executive Directors of the POLB and Port of Los Angeles (POLA), the largest and second largest port in the U.S., they are the preferred spokesmen for discussing ports’ role in the supply chain.

Often grouped together as one “port complex” or referred to as the San Pedro Ports, they are the main importers of Asian containers as well as liquid and dry bulk, as more than 40 percent of U.S. imports flow through the two ports. In his address, Cordero touted that in 2021, the port complex handled more than 20 million TEUs (POLB: 9.4 million TEUs, POLA: 10.7 million), up from 16.9 million TEUs in 2019 (POLB 2019: 7.6 million TEUs, POLA: 9.3 million).

Just how close are these two ports? Literally right next to each other. It’s hard to tell where the jurisdictional lines are as both ports seem to bleed into each other (or see also the stark red line on this map from POLA). (Note: For an in-depth history lesson on the long-standing rivalry between the two co-located ports, see here.) It’s unlikely the ports will merge any time soon. But even if merging could create operational efficiencies, having competition from their neighbor could help keep prices competitive.

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