To Reduce Emissions From Port Trucks One Man Proposes Shipping Traffic Out To Sea

As the port complex shared between Long Beach and Los Angeles moves toward meeting its emissions goals outlined in a recently updated clean air action plan and an effort to widen the 710 Freeway to alleviate truck traffic are placed on hold, a new idea to shift cargo traffic out to sea could be a solution.

At least that’s what Stas Margaronis thinks.

Margaronis, program director for Rebuild the United States, an organization that supports renewable energy strategies, and president of Santa Maria Shipping and Trading LLC, has been pushing the concept for years after the United States Department of Transportation established a marine highway system in 2007 along the nation’s coastlines and waterways in an effort to shift domestic freight, and in some cases, passenger transportation, out to sea where they could travel from port to port via ship rather than on roads and traditional highways.

Marine Highway routes as established by the United States Department of Transportation. Photo: USDOT

The marine highway system was cast as a money saver in terms of maintenance for the nation’s roads and bridges and as a way to improve air quality by reducing emissions produced by vehicles. By using the nation’s coastlines and river systems for short-sea shipping operations the highway could also reduce the amount of emissions that residents lining these travel routes are exposed to on a daily basis.

How many trucks could be diverted off local freeways like the 710 and Interstate 5 is a matter of speculation at this point, but Margaronis feels it could be a large number. 

He estimates that about 630,000 truck trips per year could be shifted out to sea, something he says could help the port meets its CAAP goals of getting to zero emissions by 2035. And the tipping point, he feels, came in the form of a vote in early March that saw the potential expansion of the 710 Freeway put on hold, something he said could change the calculations of port operators.

“I believe the key decision makers at the Port of LA and Long Beach are beginning to see that if you can’t widen the 710 freeway there’s got to be an alternative so the idea of going to ships is now starting to get a little bit more acceptance than it was three weeks ago,” Margaronis told the Post in a March interview, after the Los Angeles County Metro Board of Directors voted to put off any plans of expanding the 710.

According to a January 2017 study published by the University of California Berkeley, by the school’s Institute of Transportation Studies, about 5 percent of the goods received by the ports of LA and Long Beach end up getting trucked to Northern California.

By putting containers onto ships and sailing them from Long Beach to the Bay Area ports, and eventually to the Port of Stockton, the marine highway system could take that fraction of truck traffic and ship it out to sea. The relief could be felt on multiple freeways including the 710, the 5 and 805 Freeway in the Bay Area which faces severe daily congestion.

Pulling thousands of truck trips a year off of local freeways like the 710 and 5 could impact drivability but also emission levels that impact local communities. Long Beach residents, especially those living in close proximity to the port and the 710 Freeway, suffer from a disproportionate level of asthma cases with the city logging a figure that’s nearly twice the county average.

Margaronis pointed to a 2018 air emissions analysis conducted by Oakland-based Trinity Consultants Inc. and a naval architectural firm from the Netherlands that estimated that shifting these truck trips out to sea could result in the dramatic reduction of greenhouse gases and other particulates.

The analysis found that one marine highway ship could result in the reduction of about 120 tons of nitrogen oxides and over 33,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually by using ships powered by liquified natural gas (LNG) instead of traditional diesel powered trucks.

The ships Margaronis is proposing would use new marine battery technology and LNG to operate at zero emissions inside port complexes. 

Due to an existing federal law, any ship moving domestic freight domestically would have to be American made, which means Margaronis’ fleet of ships he hopes to build need a production facility.

A rendering of the kind of ships Margaronis is proposing to build to travel along the West Coast Marine Highway. 

“We need a new ship yard because most of the shipyards in the US are not very advanced in their manufacturing capabilities and the cost of building these ships could be very expensive at an older yard,” he said.

The cost of building the kind of ships he hopes will one day move goods up and down the West Coast is steep, but he says the cost of making them at existing shipyards would be about double the $65 million price tag they’re being produced for by European shipbuilders. He’s pursued space at the Port of Long Beach for a ship manufacturing site to no avail, as executives at the port question the viability of the marine highway on the West Coast gaining traction.

Don Snyder, director of business development at the Port of Long Beach, said that a marine highway makes sense on the East Coast, as cities and ports are more densely distributed.

But as for the Port of Long Beach, Snyder said that the time it would take for ships to move freight is slower than trucking it, making it a hard sell for the industry. 

Snyder added that most of the product being received by the port stays in Southern California, heading north along the 710 to distribution centers in East Los Angeles or heading east by rail or truck to the Inland Empire.

And if the port were to serve as a hub for a marine highway, Snyder said that it might actually increase the traffic on the 710 as trucks that might travel from the Inland Empire or other southern cities direct to Northern California would have to reroute to Long Beach to drop off at the ship terminal.

“Even if the cargo was, say, going from Southern California to Northern California, it’s hard for the water to compete on transit time and probably maybe even on pricing. If they can become competitive, and there’s people thinking outside of the box, I’m sure our tenants, therefore us, would welcome it.”

But would it make sense to trucking companies and those looking to get their goods from point A go point B as efficiently as possible?

Weston Labar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, doesn’t think so. Labar agreed with Snyder’s assessment that any product that could be shipped to Oakland or other Northern California ports is already being shipped there directly by foreign vessels adding that the trucking industry is looking internally to cut down on wait times and alleviate congestion on local freeways by switching some traffic to night and embracing other emerging technologies.

“You’re talking about something [the marine highway] that not only a cost standpoint could preclude it but the waterways would stop it from being competitive,” Labar said. “I would have to see the plans but it doesn’t sound feasible. There’s already been ship services that have tried to look at a barge process from SoCal to NorCal and it wasn’t successful. I don’t see where the demand would be.”

A market analysis of a West Coast marine highway published in 2014 by the West Coast Corridor Coalition  estimated that shipping goods by vessel could take anywhere between 19 hours and 62 hours depending on the size of the ship and the speed at which it was traveling. Those vessels though could carry several hundred containers at a time instead of the one container that would regularly be carried by a single truck. That’s compared to the roughly “one working day” it takes for a driver to travel up the I-5 to drop off one container’s worth of goods.

It concluded that the market for such a highway would be international shippers looking to save money by not calling at two different ports (Long Beach and Northern California) and would drop off goods in one location to have it shipped via marine highway by domestic shippers to its end point.

Other ports in the world have embraced short-sea shipping as a means of moving truck traffic off roads and onto waterways. The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands uses short-sea shipping to send goods to dozens of inland destinations in Europe including Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland. The Rotterdam port last year estimated that using barges and ships to move goods inland rather than trucks has dramatically reduced its C02 emissions and has helped reduce highway traffic.

Stella Ursua, a local green policy advocate and member of the Long Beach sustainable city commission, traveled with Margaronis to witness how things worked in Rotterdam. Ursua said she was impressed with the level of innovation at work overseas and said she couldn’t help but think of the possibilities if similar steps were taken at the Port of Long Beach.

“It’s been proven to work in other countries, I just think the city of Long Beach and the port, we’re so progressive, we’re constantly looking for ways we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I just think it’s worth a pilot program at the very least,” Ursua said. “In saying that, I know there’s a lot of money that has to go into this, but I don’t know. It just feels like it would be worth our while to invest in a pilot and see what kind of results we actually achieve.”

Reducing emissions along the corridor and around the port complex is something that has been called for by residents, politicians and advocates for years. The port’s push to green itself further through its ambitious goals in the updated CAAP is evidence of that but the surrounding communities feel more can still be done. Margaronis feels that next step is to address the idea that freeways are not the way of the future and that the horizon of shipping cargo from port to port should involve more ships, not trucks.

“Everyone knows somebody that’s got asthma or something and while everybody welcomes the clean air action plan initiatives, some people are really desperate,” Margaronis said. “I think we need to recognize that if we’re going to do something about this critical respiratory threat to everybody living in the San Pedro Bay area and along the Inland Empire warehouse corridor we’ve got to be looking at reducing trucks. There’s just no other way.”

[Editors note: The story has been updated to show that Weston Labar is the CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association.]

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.