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Port of Long Beach’s 2020 grew from bad to best

Despite pandemic-caused volume lows last spring, the port rebounded and ‘broke record after record’

Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero called for the vaccination of maritime workers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

When naming a tune to describe 2020, “Bad” comes to mind. But Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero thinks more along symphonic lines, describing the year just past as a crescendo.  

“We started soft, in a sea of uncertainty, and we finished strong, topping 8.1 million TEUs — our best year ever,” Cordero said during his State of the Port address Thursday. “After a dire first half of the year, cargo came roaring back.”

In fact, despite a coronavirus-caused volume drought last spring, the port was able to finish the year with imports up more than 6% over full-year 2019.

“If there was ever any question about the importance of the supply chain, we certainly now know the answer,” he said. “We proved that seaports are essential to the health of our nation and economy. Furthermore, we demonstrated that the supply chain workforce is not only essential but also fulfilled its commitment to ensure the movement of international commerce.” 

Cordero added that “throughout the pandemic, we kept the port open, thanks to the ILWU, truckers, terminal operators and our other stakeholders.” And he joined a growing list of industry leaders pushing for the prioritization of maritime workers for COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“I’ve called on my fellow port directors in the American Association of Port Authorities to advocate that waterfront workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine immediately. The workforce is essential to keeping our economy moving — and they have put their health on the line,” Cordero said. 

“It has been extraordinary to see how all our stakeholders responded. New ships continued to arrive. Early in [2020], the Matson Lurline, a new combination container and vehicle carrying ship, called at Pier C-SSA. In late spring, three of our container terminals — ITS at Pier G, LBCT at Middle Harbor and TTI at Pier T — set terminal records for container moves during a single vessel call. Pacific Container Terminal at Pier J was a powerhouse in efficient cargo flow. In addition, trains departing the port grew longer and longer. 

“As trade volumes climbed to new heights, we prioritized two-way truck moves, also known as dual transactions,” he continued. “When faced with a record-breaking surge in peak-season shipments, we quickly opened a temporary overflow container yard.”

After a bleak March and April, May container volumes at the Port of Long Beach were up nearly 10%. And then “we broke record after record,” Cordero said. 

Volumes jumped more than 20% in July, making it the busiest month in our 109-year history. That record didn’t last long. We broke the record again with our September shipments — and then broke the record for a third time with a 17% increase in October. August was our best August, and November was our best November. Finally, the year concluded with a December that turned out to be our busiest month ever.” 

Cordero said despite the pandemic, the port was able to move ahead with the final phase of the Long Beach Container Terminal; near completion of Fireboat Station 15; and start work to enhance rail moves in and out of the Pier G and J container terminals. 

“We completed our replacement for the Gerald Desmond Bridge in 2020. It’s one of the biggest projects in the history of the port, giving us a seismically improved bridge to carry nearly 15% of the nation’s inbound containers from overseas. It’s our bridge to everywhere,” he said. 

In 2021, the port will continue to make investments to improve air quality, reduce health risks and fight climate change, Cordero said. “Together with the Port of Los Angeles, we plan to transition all terminal cargo-handling equipment to zero emissions by 2030. Day by day, this equipment is arriving and being tested at port terminals.” 

Zero-emissions equipment also will include a Pacific Harbor Line battery-electric  locomotive coming later this year. 

“Not only is it zero-emissions, the new locomotive is also zero-idle and low noise, powered by lithium-ion battery technology and a battery system that can deliver up to 3,200 horsepower. It will be tested over the next two years,” he said. 

“Meanwhile, we are shepherding zero-emissions projects that will ultimately test 60 different pieces of clean air technology all across the port,” Cordero said, noting that about 15% of the cargo-handling fleet at the port today produces zero emissions.

He added that the Clean Truck Program has a goal of utilizing all zero-emissions drayage equipment by 2035, but he is optimistic that goal can be achieved earlier.

Cordero made another prediction during the State of the Port address. While 2020 was “the year of collaboration,” he said, “with the steps we’ve taken — with vaccines on the way — 2021 will be the year of recovery.”  

He acknowledged that “for too many of us, 2020 was devastating. But international trade was one of the bright spots. And I am confident that as we rebound from the pandemic, hopefully by the second half of 2021, we will see our cargo volumes stabilize, perhaps even grow as the U.S. economy improves. We’ll support even more good-paying jobs. And we’ll all thrive.” 

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Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.

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Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.