SAN FRANCISCO — For the second consecutive summer, the port of Los Angeles-Long Beach, the busiest in the U.S. and a key gateway for apparel and textile imports, is likely to avoid cargo backups during the annual peak delivery season.

“There is no congestion, and it’s looking positive,” said Jack Keyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., adding that cargo traffic at the port is forecast to grow 10.2 percent in 2006 compared with the 8.3 percent growth last year.

But challenges for the port in the competitive cargo arena aren’t over.

Los Angeles-Long Beach’s spot as the top mover of cargo containers in the country eroded last year. Its market share slipped to 55.7 percent from 56.5 percent in 2004, and 57.9 percent in 2003. An LAEDC report said port “congestion concerns and traffic diversions” of cargo to other West Coast ports by cargo shippers such as retailers was a cause. Ports with the largest gains in container processing were Seattle, up 8.8 percent last year and 7.6 percent in 2004, and Tacoma, 10.2 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.

The LAEDC said the loss of market share was symptomatic of larger issues facing U.S. ports that need to expand roads and railroads leading to their facilities.

“People who tout diversion of traffic from Los Angeles-Long Beach have to recognize that all U.S. ports are struggling with capacity issues,” the LAEDC study concluded.

A task force established by Gov. Arnold Schwarz­enegger is studying how to do a better job of moving imports into the state through its major ports in Los Angeles-Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. The panel, which is also examining the export side of the trade equation, is to meet Wednesday in Sacramento to hear comments on a draft report issued in March.

The task force’s work recently got a financial boost after an agreement was reached between state lawmakers and the governor to place a $37.3 billion public works bond issue before voters in November. About $20 billion would be earmarked for transportation projects, and priorities for this money are to be outlined by the panel.

The issue of expanding international trade in California is fraught with political wrangling that goes beyond how cash-strapped state and municipal governments can pay for road improvements, said Robin Lanier, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Waterfront Coalition, whose retail members include Target, J.C. Penney and The Limited.

This story first appeared in the May 16, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Discussions among politicians about improving the movement of goods from container ships to trucks or railroads gets bogged down by local opposition centering on noise, air pollution and increased auto traffic, Lanier said.

“Money is a concern, but it’s not what’s stopping these projects from being built,” Lanier said. It’s the lack of real political leadership in the face of strong local opposition. No politician wants to stand up and say, ‘I’m for growth at the port.'”

Lanier cited an air-quality bill in the California state legislature as an example of friction between the ports and other parts of the goods-moving network and local interests. The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D., Long Beach), would require marine terminal operators — the conduit between container ships and trucks — to keep trucks from idling in a queue for more than 30 minutes outside terminal gates. Violators could be fined $250 for each infraction. The measure has cleared the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

“The state Air Resources Board recently stated in a report that pollution from the operations at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles kills 750 people prematurely each year,” wrote Lowenthal, in commenting on Schwarzenegger’s call for a Goods Movement Action Plan.

The governor wants air emissions at the ports to be reduced to 2001 levels by 2010, which Lowenthal said cannot be achieved unless there are consequences for polluters.

Marine terminal operators at California ports argue they’re not being given enough credit by the governor’s office for already cutting emissions, as well as having the desire to reduce even more.

“We are using cleaner fuels … and [have] purchased yard equipment that exceeds any current regulatory requirement,” John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents port terminal operators, wrote to the governor’s task force. He said railroad tracks near or close to docks also have been added at Los Angeles-Long Beach.

While reducing emissions is important, charging a fee that would then be passed along to retailers and other shippers is not an effective solution, said a spokesman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a lobbying arm of the discount store sector.

“Change is going to come with conversations with the ports” and among “shippers, truckers, marine terminal operators and other participants along the supply chain,” the spokesman said. He cited a similar coming together with PierPass, the program that opened ports at night to truckers.

Lanier said retailers and other Waterfront Coalition members feel solutions to the issue of trucks bunching at the ports have a much broader reach. For example, Lanier said, such problems could be addressed in part by spreading out container ship departures from Asia instead of being largely centered on Friday sailings.

“These issues truck drivers face are more complicated than just blaming the terminal operators,” Lanier said. “These are not simple solutions. They’re pioneering business-practice change.”