Chinese to Boost Business
by Malcolm Maclachlan, San Joaquin News Service
SAN FRANCISCO -- Northern California's ports and airports should expect a big jump in freight traffic in coming years because of trade agreements with China, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta told an audience in San Francisco on Thursday.
While the Open Skies initiative that the U.S. signed with China last July led to an increase in passenger air service between the U.S. and China, it's expected that air freight will eventually grow to four or five times the level it was at before the agreement.
Ground crews remove the custom-designed cargo containers from the Express Net Airbus A-300 jet as the first cargo jet is unloaded at the new cargo center at Stockton Metro Airport. (Glenn Moore/San Joaquin News-Service)
Mineta said that air-freight centers of Los Angeles are nearing capacity, and Bay Area airports are reaching their limit to expand.
This could be good news for Stockton International Airport.
"In the last few years we've been working to get our house in order," said Stockton Airport director Barry Rondinella. "We've been anticipating an increase due to growing world trade, especially with China."
These efforts consist of $12 million in projects running from late 2001 through 2006. Rondinella says that most of this work, $10 million worth, has already been done.
This includes a 1,000-foot extension to the runway and a $6 million expansion to the main cargo apron, increasing its capacity from one to four jets.
Mineta, the sole Democrat in President George Bush's cabinet, spoke at an event hosted by the World Affairs Council, a San Francisco-based public affairs group. Mineta is a Bay Area native who represented the Silicon Valley in the U.S. Congress from 1975 to 1995.
He laid out a vision of a freight system that is going through growing pains, especially as the U.S. economy becomes more focused on Asian trade.
Bottlenecks in California could eventually lead to empty store shelves in the heartland "and idle assembly lines in the Southeast," he said.
The biggest bottlenecks could be at the giant shipping ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, these ports handle 43 percent of U.S. shipping freight. Half of the goods loaded into them leave California.
Mineta said smaller ports like Oakland, Stockton and Portland, Ore., are going to need to take more of the load.
But they'll have to expand to take on the larger ships that are now plying waters.
For smaller ports to handle these new ships, Mineta said, they will need to install new cranes and undertake major dredging projects. The alternative -- more traffic through Los Angeles and Long Beach, and more semis plying Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and Seattle -- is unacceptable, Mineta said.
According to Port of Stockton Director Richard Aschieris, his facility is expanding.
But rather than trying to take the large container business from Los Angeles and Long Beach, it is seeking to better fill its niche in working in materials that don't fit well on containers.
These include steel, rice and fertilizer.
In fact, he said, the port imported 90 percent of the fertilizer used in the San Joaquin Valley last year, a total of 386,966 metric tons.
The port more than tripled in size in 2000, when it added 1,450 acres on Rough and Ready Island that used to belong to the U.S. Navy to its existing 600-acre facility.
Still, expanding beyond its bulk-goods niche would be difficult, Aschieris said. Because of its inland location the port is only built to handle ships up to 900 feet long and needing around 35 feet of depth. Oakland's port is 45 feet deep, and the biggest new ships need ports that are 55 feet deep.
"The great thing about Stockton compared to coastal ports is that we have room to expand and create more jobs," Aschieris said.
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