A long-planned barge service between the Ports of Stockton and Oakland, Calif., began operation on Sunday evening.
A barge loaded with 32 40-foot containers filled with animal feed set off from Stockton and arrived at the Ports America terminal on Monday morning where they were to be loaded onto a Yang Ming ship, said Mark Tollini, deputy director of the Port of Stockton.
Discharge of the barge was delayed for several hours while an arbitrator for the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union discussed appropriate manning for the job, but unloading began Monday afternoon.
Ports America Outer Harbor President Jay Bowden reported that vessel operations started immediately after lunch and were going smoothly.
"Ports America supports the Stockton-to-Oakland barge operation and is pleased to be a part of its maiden voyage," Bowden added.
Tollini said the cargo was loaded into containers by Capital Rivers Group, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal, which has had an operation in Stockton for about three years, transloading product from railcars into containers.
The barge will also call at the SSA Terminal in Oakland on some voyages. Each voyage will go to a single facility in Oakland instead of "hopscotching between terminals," he explained.
The barge is returning empty to Stockton due to the labor issues in Oakland and will be loaded with export containers later in the week, Tollini said.
The ports of Stockton, Oakland and West Sacramento received a $30 million grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration in early 2010 to begin the "marine highway" service. It is called the "M-580 Service" as it offers a maritime alternative to moving containers over the interstate highway I-580 that is used by many truckers moving cargo to and from Oakland.
The program was plagued by delays and in January the Port of Stockton cancelled its concession agreement with Salt Lake City-based Savage Cos. to manage, market and operate the new barge service. The port authority took over as the prime contractor and in March hired Seattle-based SSA Marine to manage the container yard and handle stevedoring at the barge terminal.
The barge operator is Brusco Tug & Barge, Tollini said.
The first voyage served as a trial run to demonstrate that all the contracts are in place and that the service can deliver as promised.
Tollini said Stockton hopes to begin regularly scheduled weekly service in the very near future and was optimistic that business from steamship lines, agricultural producers and others shippers would grow.
Stockton has two barges which can be used in the service. Barge M-580A
made the first voyage and has a capacity to move 216 40-foot containers. A second barge, M-580B,
has capacity for 144 40-foot containers and will be added as warranted by demand.
The port's research indicates there is strong interest in the San Joaquin Valley, and beyond, for a water shuttle to Oakland.
"Right now, I'm very confident" that the operation will make money, Tollini said, adding that it doesn't enjoy any subsidies. "That's been tried before and when the money runs out the service stops. This is designed as a self-sustaining for-profit business operated by the Port of Stockton. We've invested a couple million dollars of our own money on top of what we got from the federal government, so we’re committed to it.
"Today, my phone has been ringing. Nobody wanted to be first," he said.
Tollini said an attraction to shippers of dense cargo is the ability to move 20 to 25 percent more cargo in a container than can be carried over the road with a normal drayage truck and chassis. By moving four to five tons more cargo in a container than the 20 tons or so that can normally be hauled, a shipper moving five containers might be able to get an equivalent amount of cargo in four boxes.
Tollini would not discuss the exact cost of shipping on the barge, but said the goal is to do it for about the same price that it costs for a round-trip haul to Stockton, even with ILWU workers handling cargo on both ends of the voyage. Truck rates from the Stockton-Sacramento area are about $350-$455 for the basic drayage cost and a fuel surcharge of about 30 percent, or $105.
The barge service could save shippers money on chassis, which increasingly must be leased from equipment operators instead of being provided for free by ocean carriers, and by avoiding the $75 gate charge in Oakland, Tollini added.
Antonnini Trucking is the the first motor carrier to agree to deliver and collect containers in the Stockton area, although all trucking companies are welcome to offer service, Tollini said. The port authority has also created a Central Valley chassis pool.
"At the end of the day it has to be as affordable as trucking and it has to be efficient. Nobody wants to wait 10 days to get their cargo. I think we will solve those two problems and then it’s a matter of pointing out we’ve got a better mouse trap," he said.
The port authority will partner with ocean carriers and non-vessel operating common carriers to make it easy for cargo owners to book transportation through normal channels.
Questions had been raised by the World Shipping Council (WSC) about whether containers moved by the barge service would be weighed.
Chris Koch, president of the WSC, said Monday that those concerns have been addressed with the Port of Stockton agreeing to weigh the containers and transmit that information to carriers in Oakland so that they can be safely handled and stowed. - Chris Dupin
and Eric Kulisch