By Reed Fujii
Record Staff Writer
October 27, 2010 12:00 AM

STOCKTON – Federal, state and local officials broke ground Tuesday in Stockton on a $30 million marine highway project intended to ease regional highway congestion by moving cargo by barge instead of truck.
The Port of Oakland currently handles nearly 100 percent of cargo packed into marine shipping containers that move through Northern California.

Under the marine highway concept, trucks would deliver and receive cargo containers at the ports of Stockton and West Sacramento, and barges (each carrying more than 300 truckloads of containers) would shuttle among Oakland and the inland ports.

Dubbed the California Green Trade Corridor, the project is one of 18 marine highway projects being supported by federal transportation funding, said David Matsuda, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration.

“Not only will this project ultimately reduce air emissions from trucks on Interstate 580, it will also create new alternatives throughout Northern California to transport exports to the Far East,” he said.

The ceremonies Tuesday marked the release of federal funds to make the needed port upgrades and buy new equipment, including:

» $13 million for the construction of a container staging area at the Port of Stockton, rail line extensions and the purchase of two cranes and a barge to support the service.

» $8.5 million to build a distribution and repackaging center and purchase a crane for operations in West Sacramento.

» $8.5 million to provide electrical supplies at berths at the Port of Oakland, thus allowing ships to shut down their engines and help reduce air emissions in green trade corridor.

Steve Herum, chairman of the Stockton port commission, said the project opens a whole new line of business for the port, which currently handles only bulk cargo, such as grain, cement, steel, sulfur and fertilizer.

“It’s going to change how the port does business,” he said. “We have a key opportunity to expand exports from our area. … It’s going to change our community as well.”
He expects the project to generate nearly 340 construction and permanent jobs, in turn pumping nearly $25 million in salaries and benefits into the local economy.
Area labor leaders, too, welcomed the project while expressing some reservations.

“This is going to create a lot of jobs, not just for the longshore (workers), but it will create a lot of jobs for our community,” Greg Delucchi of Marine Clerks Union Local 34. “It’s going to be great, but a lot of hard work has to be done to make it successful.”

“We’re hoping it’s going to have a long-term benefit,” said Marc Cuevas, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 54. “Our concern is that it’s not economically feasible.”

Studies conducted a decade ago by the ports of Stockton and Oakland found it was simply more efficient to truck container cargo directly to Oakland rather than transfer it to barge or rail for part of the journey. Port officials said economic conditions today are different and that the federal grant will help get the marine highway operating.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time for this type of project to hit the dirt here in Stockton,” Mayor Ann Johnston told the gathering.

While ceremonial shovels were the only things that turned dirt Tuesday, port officials hope to open the project to bidding from contractors and crane builders this week and get work under way within a month or so.

Under terms of the federal grant, the project has to be completed by February 2012.