A worker walks to rail switches at the Long Beach Container Terminal rail yard Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

It’s an understatement to say the San Pedro Bay ports—along with trade hubs elsewhere across the country and the world—have been in the spotlight lately. Cargo backlogs have dominated headlines for months, taking the blame for a shortage of goods, inflated prices and now the possibility that holiday gifts won’t be delivered on time.

The persistence of shipping woes during the COVID-19 pandemic has made me wonder whether any of this was avoidable.

The Port of Los Angeles’ executive director Gene Seroka, for his part, told my colleague Brandon Richardson he believes that if the federal government had sufficiently invested in the West Coast ports in recent years, “you wouldn’t see [dozens] of ships in the bay today.”

But there’s only so much cajoling the ports can do on that front. So my next question was: How have the ports been investing their own money, along with funds they do receive from the federal government and other agencies?

I talked to the Port of Los Angeles’ deputy executive director of development, Tony Gioiello, and the Port of Long Beach’s managing director of engineering, Sean Gamette, to get a sense of their major projects and how they’ll benefit the region and the shipping industry as a whole in the years ahead.

When asked about what they see as the most significant capital improvement projects currently underway at their ports, both Gioiello and Gamette spoke first about rail work. While many folks may think the current backlog comes down to the ports’ ability to unload ships, every link in the supply chain has been inundated—meaning rail, which connects them all, must be addressed.

And the twin ports, Gioiello and Gamette said, are working to do just that.

In Los Angeles, there’s the $73 million plan to add new railroad storage tracks on Terminal Island and the $52 million railyard expansion at Berths 302-305, which will increase its capacity by about 10%. And in Long Beach, a $35 million project will add another departure track for trains from Piers G to J, $25 million is dedicated to adding 3,000 feet of track to eliminate a bottleneck at Ocean Boulevard, and $40 million is going toward plans to add about

10,000 feet of track to the wye on Terminal Island, which is a critical junction for the port.

That’s not to mention the Port of Long Beach’s $870 million project to redevelop the Pier

B railyard, which aims to redirect cargo movement from trucks to trains.

“There’s a strategic focus on rail,” Gamette said. “We can move cargo more efficiently by rail, and we can do it in a more environmentally friendly way, right? In 2020, we moved about 1.6 million TEUs [20-foot equivalent units] by on-dock rail, but we forecast that by 2045, we might be needing to move about 2.9 million TEUs by rail.”

Gamette said the Pier B project alone could help increase the share of cargo that’s moved by rail from 25% to 35% or even higher.

“The more cargo we move by train helps us in another way, as well,” he said. “We believe that one train the size of the yard today really can eliminate about 2,000 truck trips, so it’s kind of a big deal when it comes to efficiency.”

Gioiello, with the Port of LA, acknowledged the importance of rail projects and the efficiency of goods movement overall. But he also said other types of investments—like terminal improvements and enhancing public access—are just as critical.

When it comes to funding, though, Gioiello agreed with his boss that the federal government could be more supportive of these major projects.

President Joe Biden, for his part, acknowledged the need for infrastructure investment—with a particular focus on investment in ports—in a speech last week. He noted that the infrastructure bill currently sitting in Congress, which includes $17 billion for port infrastructure, represents the “biggest investment in our ports in our history.”

But Gioiello said changes to how the federal government approves grants for the ports also need to be made.

“It’s very competitive to get those federal funds right now,” he said. “We have found out that sometimes the criteria they’re using to judge projects—maybe they need to be updated.”

As an example, Gioiello pointed to a terminal electrification project.

“We’re looking at grant opportunities—federal grants—for that project, and even though it’s a great environmental project and would have great benefits, the project itself was not increasing cargo through that terminal,” he said. “So the way that grant criterias are written, we weren’t going to be competitive on that.”

Still, Gioiello said the availability of federal funding doesn’t dictate which projects the port pursues. If specific work is necessary, the port will fund the project on its own if it must.

And conversely, he said, “we decided long ago we’re not going to do a project just because there’s grant money out there.”

But the question still stands: If the West Coast ports had more investment in recent years, would they be better equipped to handle the current surge? That’s a question we may never be able to answer. And as Gamette told me, “I don’t know that anybody could have forecast the type of surge we’re experiencing.”

But, to the ports’ credit, there are some investments they’ve made that eased what could have been an even worse crisis.

Trucks cross the Long Beach International Gateway bridge onto and off of Terminal Island Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The new Long Beach International Gateway, for example, is wider and taller than its predecessor, the Gerald Desmond Bridge, allowing bigger ships to travel underneath and easing traffic flow for trucks carrying cargo across it.

“A brand new bridge during this surge is a big deal,” Gamette said. “The new bridge is certainly helping with truck traffic flow, alleviating pinch points.”

And while the bridge and other work has not been enough to eliminate the impact of the current surge, both port representatives said the agencies are indeed working now to overcome the challenges they may face a decade or more down the line.

“I couldn’t be more proud to work for an organization that has got the long-term outlook on capital infrastructure that the Port of Long Beach does,” Gamette said. “When we forecast our capital program, we look out 10 yeras, and we’re thinking about looking out 20 years now.”

“So we’re planning on that kind of horizon, and what that does is allow us to put things in service that take a while to build,” he added. “Those are all going to increase the efficiency of cargo movement, so they will have an impact.”

But, as we’ve seen over the past year and a half, Gamette acknowledged, “they’re not things that are done overnight.”

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.