A truck waits on a crane at the Port of Long Beach's Pier A Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The past year has been choppy for the Port of Long Beach—from highs of numerous record-setting months and millions in grant funding, to lows of congestion and declining container volumes as the San Pedro Bay ports continue to lose market share to East and Gulf coast facilities.

Since October 2020, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles were inundated with unprecedented congestion that saw container ships sitting off the coast—sometimes for weeks—before being able to dock and unload. The backlog reached a peak of 109 ships in January of this year.

The congestion eased slowly over the next 11 months until the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which was tracking the congestion since it began, announced the backlog was no more as of Nov. 22.

But the damage was already done. Due to the backlog, retailers and shippers had already begun diverting goods to other ports, especially those on the East and Gulf coasts.

The persistent backlog of ships also worsened air pollution this year, which has been on the decline for years.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding operations at the twin ports was the expiration of labor contracts for West Coast dockworkers in July. Negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association began in May, but an agreement was not reached, which fueled concerns that a strike or slow-down could be imminent.

Despite concerns, work has continued as usual while negotiations are ongoing. Both sides of the table agreed to a full media blackout, so the status of talks is unknown. But officials from both ports have said they are confident an agreement will be made with no disruption to operations.

After setting cargo records during six out of the first nine months of the year—with the other three months being near historic highs—container volumes at the port really began to slip in September. In September, October and November the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is regularly ranked the third busiest port behind LA and Long Beach, outperformed the West Coast facilities in terms of container volumes.

Last month, the East Coast port moved 723,069 20-foot-equivalent units, or TEUs (the standard measure of a shipping container), while LA and Long Beach handled 639,000 and 588,742, respectively.

New York-New Jersey overtook Long Beach in total cargo handled in October, a spread that widened to 291,099 TEUs after November. LA, meanwhile, continues to hang onto the top spot by 301,287 TEUs. Even with the decline in cargo, it is likely LA will maintain the top spot for 2022.

Nationwide, another shadow of uncertainty arose for the supply chain when rail worker unions and their employers failed to agree on new labor contracts. Workers were preparing to stage several short protests beginning in December, which would have brought a large portion of the U.S. economy to a screeching halt.

The Biden administration intervened in the talks, brokering a deal that was approved by some of the unions but several holdouts remained. In the end, Congress stepped in and passed an agreement that included pay raises and an extra vacation day, among other things.

The House of Representatives approved a separate item to provide rail workers with seven days paid sick leave, which was the main issue stalling negotiations, but the Senate failed to pass the legislation. While a stoppage in cargo and passenger trains was averted, it was done on the backs of workers, who argue the decision puts the very foundation of unions and collective bargaining at risk in the U.S.

Even with all the challenges, the ports of LA and Long Beach are on track to close out 2022 with container volumes just below 2021 levels, which was a record year for both ports.

Projects, partnerships and funding

Throughout the year, the Port of Long Beach has announced new grant funding for proposed projects as well as new initiatives to further its efficiency and environmental goals.

The year started with Gov. Gavin Newsom releasing his proposed state budget, which included $2.3 billion for port infrastructure, equipment and more. As the two largest ports in the state, Long Beach and LA are in line to receive large amounts of funding for various projects.

Long Beach alone announced tens of millions in grant funding this year, including $8 million to improve waterways and $30 million for zero-emission cargo-handling equipment.

The port’s long-awaited channel deepening project gained federal approval this year. The $170 million effort will deepen various channels, basins and slips and ease turning bends within the complex, allowing for larger ships.

The deepening project will be partially funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the agency that greenlit the project and will work with the port. Work is slated to begin in 2025 and take three years to complete.

In September, the port announced trucking company 4 Gen Logistics purchased 61 battery-electric, zero-emission heavy-duty trucks. The company’s entire fleet is expected to be zero-emission by 2035, 10 years before it is mandated by state law.

The twin ports officially launched their long-planned clean truck fee in April, which requires a $10 fee be paid for each TEU moved by diesel trucks. In June, the agencies announced the program raised $8 million in its first two months.

In October, the port announced nine cranes at the SSA Marine terminal were converted to run on electricity. The move is part of the port’s Zero-Emissions Terminal Equipment Transition project, which is testing zero-emission vehicles in daily operations.

Port officials also announced several new partnerships this year, including one that will work toward developing a statewide renewable hydrogen market and another to drive economic development in Long Beach.

The twin ports in November announced an initiative with Singapore to create a green shipping corridor, similar to a previous announcement by the Port of LA and Shanghai announced at the beginning of the year. The partnership will push the development of low- and zero-carbon fuels and greener vessels as well as digital tools to increase efficiency.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is negotiating with the Pacific Maritime Association.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.