By Stephanie Metzinger
As the protector of twin ports Long Beach and Los Angeles, California State Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell has long advocated for efficiencies in and support of the ports. O’Donnell, a Democrat, has served as the 70th District Assemblymember since 2014. Throughout his term, he has accelerated the protection of natural resources, advanced state university educational offerings, led efforts to grow the maritime industry and encouraged a balanced budgeting approach that fosters a thriving economy for the Golden State.
O’Donnell currently serves as Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Ports and Goods Movement, providing expertise on the complex challenges and opportunities faced by the freight sector, supply chain and logistics industries. Western Grower & Shipper recently interviewed O’Donnell to gain his insight and analysis on port challenges and supply chain disruptions:
WG&S: What is your main priority for relieving congestion at the ports?
Patrick O’Donnell: The most basic function I serve is to help people become educated and activated on the issue. A lot of the conversation has been around imports sitting on ships outside our harbor, but we need to educate people on the current situation at our ports as it relates to both getting goods in and out of our nation.
WG&S: Our farmers are struggling to get equal or better treatment from carriers because carriers are prioritizing imports and not exports. How do we get more attention on exports?
PO: This is something we examined at the Select Committee on Ports and Goods Movement Hearing on Nov. 3, 2021. We are just broaching that conversation because we have not had this problem before. Prior to this, the shipping companies had an incentive to export goods: money. It appears that many shippers are now bypassing the opportunity to export products because the profit just is not there as it is with the imports. They are making six to seven times greater profit with imports than they were just two years ago.
We need to address this issue as a state by taking a look at California export policy and including changes to comport with our port complex.
WG&S: What are some actions being done on the state-level priorities for solving the supply chain bottleneck?
PO: Things are being done in both a short-term and long-term manner:
- Short Term: Property Off the Ports
It is becoming like spaghetti out on our docks. There are imports coming in and exports going out, but there are also a lot of containers that have been sitting there since Easter and the Fourth of July since the owners no longer desire that cargo and are not picking it up. Governor Gavin Newsom has developed a list of properties and locations near the ports where we can place these unused containers to free up space on the docks. This will allow us to bring more products into the ports and push more out.
- Long Term: Examining Infrastructure Needs and Investing in our Ports
The root cause of this bottleneck is people buying a lot of stuff and our infrastructure not being prepared for it. We need to look at infrastructure support for the ports, focusing on more on-dock rails (railroads closer to the ship where we can move product easily off the ship and onto the train) so we would not need as many trucks. Additionally, we need to start speaking about encouraging U.S. production of chassis (the undercarriage of automobiles). There is a shortage of chassis because 1) they are being made in far-away lands like China and it is taking too long to get them; and 2) containers are being sent to full warehouses, and as a result, they are just sitting in the parking lot on chassis and tying up the chassis pool.
WG&S: When can we expect things to go back to normal?
PO: Port management is telling us that it will be the better part of the year before things get back to “normal.” There is even a projection that there will never be a “normal” again. If this is to be the new norm or if this bottleneck situation is to happen again, we need to be prepared for that by investing in our ports (specifically, infrastructure) and creating wise policies around our ports.
Personally, I think it is going to continuously get better. What you are going to see is that the velocity (ability to get containers in and out of the dock quickly) will improve, but we will also maintain the current high volume.
WG&S: How can the agriculture industry continue to support you in your efforts?
PO: A lot of agriculture lies outside my district but about all of ag comes through my district. Just because you do not have a port in your district, it does not mean that advocating for the support of ports is not important to your district. I encourage folks who have farms across California to engage with their respective assemblymember and make them aware of how important ports are to your business and district.
WG&S: Any last thoughts for our readers?
PO: The current state of the supply chain is very much bipartisan. This is something that we all see as a real issue, and I appreciate the opportunity to work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to help solve this problem.
My job has continually been to educate others in Sacramento as to how important the ports are to our economy. Forty percent of the goods imported in the United States come through the two ports in my district. For economic, environmental and national security reasons, we need to invest in our port complex and infrastructure so we can get goods in and out in a more expeditious and environmentally-friendly fashion.