LOS ANGELES — These days, the worst traffic jam in Southern California is at the port.
Scores of mammoth cargo ships laden with Asian imports often must wait a week before their thousands of steel containers are loaded or unloaded at the sprawling docks along the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
With ships arriving faster than dockworkers can handle them, the ports can't keep ahead of the rising tide of Pacific Rim cargo. The delays have revealed problems with everything from harbor operations to the truck and rail systems that move goods inland.
Port officials have hired thousands of new dock and rail workers and plan to make the port a 24-hour operation. But the changes won't be fully implemented until next year, and many see the planned improvements as a temporary fix.
"If all those things work, maybe that will deal with the growth that we're seeing right now, but I don't know about the growth five to 10 years from now," said Marc J. Hershman of the University of Washington School of Marine Affairs.
Over the past three decades, the twin ports have grown into the nation's main entry point for cargo containers. Last year, the equivalent of 11.3 million 20-foot containers passed across the docks. Only the ports of Hong Kong and Singapore saw more cargo.
Port authorities calculated that traffic would increase 5 percent this year. Instead, fed by China's booming manufacturing industry and U.S. consumers' appetite for imported goods, traffic increased 10 percent. The ports moved about half of the $750 billion worth of cargo that moved through the West Coast last year; the balance entered through more than two dozen other major Pacific ports.
"It's unbelievable, the congestion," said Mike Mitre, who lifts huge steel containers of cargo from ship to shore with a 130-foot-tall crane — moving far more cargo in an hour than he moved in a day as a dockhand 30 years ago.
Ships now wait an average of five to nine days before they're unloaded, sometimes longer. Trains and trucks can't carry the goods away fast enough.
"You have to think of it as a system," said Dick McKenna, deputy director of the Marine Exchange, which monitors ship movements at the ports. "The pressure is really the amount of cargo we're getting."
This month, the average number of vessels in the harbor hit 80, more than double the usual. Last week, more than 90 ships were in port, the most this year, McKenna said.
The crush of cargo began intensifying early in summer. Terminal operators said they didn't have enough dockworkers. Experienced railroad employees, many having taken early retirement earlier this year, also were hard to find. And a flotilla of new and bigger ships made matters worse.
"Productivity on the terminals started to decline," said Jon Hemingway, president and chief executive of terminal operator SSA Marine.
At this time of the year, retailers are waiting for shipments of holiday merchandise, but port officials say many retailers appear to have made adjustments.
Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said, "We anticipated (the) delays, planned for it and built it into our schedule."
The port is quickly taking on more help to get cargo moving faster. Two thousand new workers are expected to be hired — including about 1,000 full-timers who are expected to be phased in this month, said Dave Arian, president of the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union's local chapter. That should bring the two ports' total work force to just under 11,000 full-time and casual hires, he said.
But management and the union believe even more workers will be needed.
"If it's not enough, we'll keep going," said Jim McKenna, president and chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the ports' marine terminal operators.
Still, hiring more dockworkers is a solution to only one of the problems behind the gridlock.
A persistent shortage of rail cars and truck drivers is making it difficult to unclog the terminals. Railroad companies tell the port they simply don't have enough people to keep up; truck drivers are turning down jobs hauling from the port because of hours-long delays.
Brian Griley, owner of the Carson-based trucking company Southern Counties Express Inc., said he can't find enough drivers.
"We can't handle any more volume," he said. "We're already maxed."
The terminal operators have proposed extending the hours available for trucks to take cargo into the evenings and weekends. The change, which would reward companies picking up cargo during off-peak hours and charge higher fees to those which don't, was due to go into effect gradually over six months beginning next month. But labor shortages forced the postponement of those plans until early next year.
Currently, less than one-fifth of all cargo is moved at night or on weekends.
Hemingway, the terminal operator, said the long-term answer is expanding the size of the ports and developing rail and roadways to accommodate increased cargo traffic. But he knows such growth isn't popular with local residents who already complain of diesel fumes and congestion.
"There's no way we can engage the community about a discussion" before the extended hours are in place, Hemingway said. "Port growth and port jobs no longer trump community concerns over traffic and pollution."