Berthing canals

Northern California’s three major ports harbor uncertainty

Sea changes are coming to the region’s local port, but ideas as to what exactly this means vary.

The big question mark is the expansion of the Panama Canal. Also in the mix are railroads, barges, trucks and geography. For Northern California’s three major ports—West Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland—the good news is the launch of a new marine highway system. Funded by the federal government, the ports will split $30 million to develop a system of canals to ship goods on barges.

“This will get thousands of trucks off the road and cut down emissions that contribute to global warming,” said Christopher Cabaldon, West Sacramento’s mayor and a port commissioner.

The game changer could be the widening of the Panama Canal, which in 2014 should complete a third lane that can handle bigger, cargo-heavy ships. In a disputed 2007 report, a British company projected the West Coast could lose up to 35 percent of its traffic. Ports on the East Coast are already scrambling to be ready for an influx of ship traffic.

Others are not so sure a widened Panama Canal will make those kind of waves.

“We are taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Port of Oakland spokesman Robert Bernardo, who added that potentially higher fees could deter traffic in the Panama Canal.

Daniel Smith, a transportation consultant with the Tioga Group, also told SN&R that there are a number of issues that could continue to make the West Coast a favored port of call.

Both Smith and Bernardo stressed that the West Coast has closer proximity to the booming ports of Asia. Oakland, for instance, receives 70 percent of its traffic from Asia, according to Bernardo.

The recession has also unexpectedly helped the West Coast’s cause. Although demand for goods is down, so is the actual number of ships in harbors. During the heady economic times of the early 2000s, long lines to offload at ports contributed to the projections that many shippers would eventually bypass the West.

With the economic slowdown, the harbor queues have dwindled. “There is no shortage of capacity right now,” Smith said. “It could take until 2014 or 2016 to get back to where we were in 2007.”

The Port of West Sacramento wants to be ready if shipping traffic does hit full throttle in the future.

If all goes well, the marine highway is expected to help get goods, particularly rice from Sacramento, and other agricultural products and scrap metal, to ships in Oakland.

“We don’t expect [the Panama Canal] to impact us directly, because we can’t accommodate the bigger ships anyway,” Cabaldon said. “But it could affect us indirectly if Oakland has competition for the larger ships.”

Smith stressed being proactive in the meantime. “[West Sacramento] is going to have to be aggressive. It’s one thing to build canals. It is another to build customers.”