LOS ANGELES (AP) — Business, labor and public officials fear expansion of the Panama Canal could cut cargo business by a quarter at the twin Los Angeles-Long Beach ports, which currently handle 40 percent of the nation's imported Asian cargo.
The widening and deepening of the Panama Canal, which will be completed in 2014, would allow huge freighters to bypass West Coast ports and head directly to terminals on the Gulf and East coasts.
The biggest ships that can squeeze through the Panama Canal now carry 4,400 to 5,000 containers. The widening project will allow ships with 12,600 containers.
The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that there are concerns the region's role in international trade is at stake. The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex is the nation's biggest and the world's sixth-busiest.
"Worst case, there could be a 25 percent diversion from Los Angeles-Long Beach," economist Paul Bingham said. "That's upward of 3 million cargo containers. That's a lot of dockworkers who don't get work, truckers with less to haul and trains that don't run."
Cargo movement employs more than 500,000 people, directly or indirectly, in Southern California.
The ports, neighboring cities and railroads plan improvements in an effort to keep the region competitive, including plans to speed loading of cargo onto trains, eliminate bottlenecks and increasing capacity. But opposition from some residents, environmental groups and others could jeopardize those efforts, according to a coalition of business, labor and government that calls itself the Jobs 1st Alliance.
Two Long Beach City Council members, for instance, moved to block construction of a new railroad freight complex near the ports because of fears it would increase pollution and force relocation of small businesses.
The coalition said the rail projects and other improvements are crucial to luring regional trade.
"To protect these jobs, we need to get these projects completed," alliance president Wally Baker said. "But every time it looks as though progress is being made, someone tries to move the finish line."
The coalition has started a Beat the Canal campaign, using Facebook and a website in its mission to get faster action and fight environmental reviews.