Business & Economy

2020 Commission: Combine the ports of LA and Long Beach

Port of Los Angeles.
Port of Los Angeles.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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One of the bold recommendations the blue ribbon 2020 Commission made Wednesday was merging the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The commission points out that together, the Ports of LA and Long Beach create the busiest complex in the country and fifth busiest in the world, but they’ve been losing market share over the last ten years.  To enhance competitiveness, the commission suggests the ports should pool their resources, rather than continue to compete against each other for the same cargo clients:  

All too often the Ports of LA and Long Beach issue press releases boasting of new customers — one only has to study the details to understand these customers are just switching from LA to Long Beach or vice versa and not bringing new jobs to the region. And with the ongoing widening of the Panama Canal, maritime trade is about to get a lot more complex — and competitive. We should be competing with ports in other regions, not with each other.

A good idea?  That depends on who’s talking. 

"The combining of the two ports is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard of," said Rich Dines, Vice President of the Board of Harbor Commissioners for the Port of Long Beach

For Dines, the competition is healthy and necessary.  He said if the two ports were on the same team, that team would become complacent and then really begin to lose market share.

"We make each other better by being two separate ports," Dines told KPCC. " The collaboration is always going to be there on clean air, clean water, port security, port energy. That’s all good. But we’re two separate businesses."

Sung Won Sohn, a former member of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, agreed with the 2020 Commission that the competition isn’t creating any new jobs.

"We have been trying to steal customers from each other, and essentially we are hurting ourselves," said Sohn, who teaches economics at California State University, Channel Island and is vice chairman of fashion retailer Forever 21. 

For Sohn, one port in the San Pedro Bay makes a lot of sense, but Port of Los Angeles spokesman Philip Sanfield wasn’t ready to endorse the idea of a merger.

"We’re willing to sit down and see if there’s additional collaborative efforts that would be beneficial to the ports and the region," Sanfield told KPCC. 

Tom O’Brien, interim head of the Center for International Trade and Transportation at California State University, Long Beach, said combining ports is not a new idea, but bringing LA and Long Beach together would be politically "herculean."

"It’s not just a merging or an integration of two ports but in many ways, it’s a merging of two different city cultures that are reflective in port operations," O'Brien said. 

O'Brien and Sohn point out the ports operate on state land and according to state laws.  Sohn suggested the state government would have to lead the effort to merge them and create a new authority to oversee them.

 The LA 2020 Commission suggests that if the rival states of New York and New Jersey can join forces under one port authority, it should be possible in the San Pedro Bay, too.