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California truck weight exemption unlikely to ease ports logjam

Increase in gross weight limits designed to clear cargo faster but appears to have limited value on port routes

California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference at the Port of Long Beach on Wednesday to explain what officials are doing to reduce congestion. (Photo: California Governor's Office)

The California Department of Transportation said Wednesday it will begin issuing temporary permits allowing trucks carrying heavier import loads of up to 88,000 pounds on the state highway system, but the change is unlikely to produce intended reductions in huge container backlogs at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The increased truck weight limit will apply to the entire state highway system, including interstate routes, for moves between ports and distribution centers in California. CalTrans said it will begin accepting applications to go beyond the current 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight limit on Friday. Permits will be valid until June 30.

Cities and counties can issue their own permits for travel on local roads.

Limited availability of trucks and chassis is one of many constraints preventing the drawdown of imported containers in Southern California. Allowing trucks to pull more cargo per trip conceptually would improve efficiency and get more volume moved faster to distribution centers, but there is no way to top off shipping boxes with more cargo because they are pre-loaded and sealed at overseas origin points in compliance with ocean shipping and U.S. highway weight limits. Transfer of goods from 40-foot international containers to 53-foot domestic containers is common, but that takes place at cross-dock warehouses around the area where the containers must first be delivered. 

“It’s not going to have any impact on what’s happening right now. There is no mechanism that is going to assist this backlog relative to weight,” Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, told American Shipper. 

The HTA, which represents intermodal shuttle drivers serving West Coast ports, and the California Trucking Association are working with CalTrans on ways to increase trucking capacity and pushing for the increased weight limits to also cover exports and the Port of Oakland. The trade associations are unclear about how the new rules will be applied and are waiting for more details, Schrap said.

It remains to be seen whether trucks with extra-heavy loads will be allowed to travel without special equipment that better distributes weight on the road surface with an extra axle. And, he added, unless local jurisdictions follow through with weight exemptions of their own, drivers won’t be able to take advantage of the state rules.

“I’m glad that they’re trying creative solutions, but we need realistic approaches to clear this bottleneck. For us, at the end of the day, it’s not about having heavier containers. It’s about getting the empty containers out of here. That is the issue.

“There are over 100,000 empty containers at the harbor. We need sweeper vessels, we need additional empty return depots so we can free up chassis to move the imports off dock,” Schrap said in an interview.

Logistics professionals say marine terminals are so full of loaded import, and empty, containers that it is difficult for cargo owners and their trucking partners to return unloaded containers and keep the cycle going smoothly. Many terminals are still restricting empty returns, which exacerbates congestion because empties in the field rest on chassis and are reducing the availability of wheeled equipment to pick up imports. 

CalTrans is still refining how the new truck weight limits will be implemented. “Work between the freight industry and CalTrans is ongoing in how to make this a useful tool,” spokesman William Arnold acknowledged.

Government measures

During a tour of the San Pedro Bay ports Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said recent government and private sector efforts have resulted in a 32% decrease in containers sitting on the dock for more than nine days. Port officials are claiming progress clearing out long-dwelling containers since they implemented a plan to penalize carriers $100 per day for containers moving by truck that lingered beyond nine days and for containers moving by rail that stayed longer than six days, with the charge scheduled to escalate $100 per day until departure. Port users are upset that carriers will pass the cost onto their customers.

The ports cited improved fluidity this week as the reason for postponing collection of the surcharges until next Monday. But the Los Angeles and Long Beach port authorities have provided few concrete numbers on the reductions, with container overstays actually appearing to increase in recent weeks after dipping at the end of October. 

Newsom, who was accompanied by White House port envoy John Porcari, said ocean carriers loaded out about 10,000 empty containers on sweeper vessels last weekend and that more collection vessels are scheduled to arrive in the next few weeks. 

“California has taken swift action across the board to address congestion and increase our capacity to move goods quickly,” Newsom said at a press event. “I am grateful for the cooperation of both the public and private sectors — from the federal government to the ports, the workforce, the retailers and the shipping lines — for the additional commitments they’ve made to tackle the backlog.”

Newsom and Porcari, along with state and local officials, gathered Wednesday at Total Terminals International’s container terminal at Pier T. TTI was the first terminal to pilot 24/7 operations, starting in September, by adding a third shift from 3-7 a.m. The White House has endorsed the program.

Most freight transportation providers say the initiative to drive more truck traffic through terminals during late-night shifts and convince shippers to maintain longer warehouse hours need more planning and coordination before they will have any tangible impact.

The announcement to relax rules on overweight loads is the latest response to Newsom’s directive last month for agencies to help mitigate the supply chain crisis at the ports, which handle 40% of all import containers. The Southern California bottleneck is contributing to retail and manufacturing shortages, and inflation.

Last week, the Division of Motor Vehicles expanded its capacity to administer commercial driving tests to increase the pool of truckers available to move goods in Southern California. 

A multiagency Supply Chain Task Force is also identifying state-owned properties that could be used to store containers near ports and free up space at marine terminals, as well as private facilities that can be temporarily leased as overflow yards.

The Newsom administration is also considering long-term investments for the upcoming budget that can assist goods movement, including infrastructure improvements, truck electrification and workforce development.

Republicans are blaming President Joe Biden and Newsom for the supply chain disruptions even though the crisis is global and the government has limited influence over freight transportation networks that are mostly in private hands. On Tuesday, Republican members of Congress from California called on Newsom to declare a state of emergency and eliminate or suspend regulations hindering the movement of international commerce. 

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]