It's not exactly like digging the Panama Canal, but local officials say federal funds intended to make the Port of West Sacramento a milepost on an inland marine highway will boost Northern California agriculture and local businesses.
The U.S. Department of Transportation last week awarded $30 million in stimulus funds to a partnership that will link shipping among the ports of West Sacramento, Stockton and Oakland.
The funds will be used to start a container barge service among the three ports, an alternative to current rail and truck shipping.
Officials said the barge service, which they hope to launch this year, would be used primarily to ship consumer goods and agricultural products grown in Central and Northern California.
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Mike McGowan, chairman of the Sacramento-Yolo Port District Commission, said the port's share of the DOT funds is nearly $10 million, which will go toward a port crane, barges and facilities to house shipping containers.
McGowan said the partnership "makes the ports part of a system instead of separate" entities. Locally, he characterized the potential benefits as enormous.
"It opens up the Sacramento region. It opens our market up to the world," he said. "I think that opportunity goes a long way toward enhancing the importance of the Port of West Sacramento."
McGowan said he did not know how many construction jobs will be added locally, but he speculated that "it also will add secondary jobs and help stimulate the external economy outside the (local) port.
"I'm not exactly sure how comprehensive it could be, but small businesses in the area will be able to use it to ship containers down to Oakland, bound for China, Japan or Australia."
West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon was likewise upbeat.
"Our vision for the port's future as a key Northern California goods-movement hub is coming to fruition," he said. "We've worked hard to develop a strategy for long-term success, and it's exciting for the port, city and region to see those efforts paying off."
But one expert said it's uncertain whether the barge service will be economically viable. Jock O'Connell, the University of California Center Sacramento's international trade and economics adviser, noted that a past Port of West Sacramento study raised concerns about shipping costs associated with barge service.
O'Connell said International Longshore and Warehouse Union personnel charge for each time a shipping container is moved. A trip to Oakland might involve loading a container from a truck to a barge in West Sacramento, unloading it at a staging area at the Port of Oakland and then loading it onto a ship at that port.
"Those costs add up for the shipper, and we don't know how often those barges come by (in West Sacramento)," O'Connell noted. "If you have to have your (cargo) on a ship leaving in two days, you might want to make sure it gets there by putting it on a truck."
O'Connell said he likes the idea of enhanced California ports and noted that "it would likely provide multiple social and environmental benefits.
However, he added, "It is irresponsible for public officials to go down this river without being candid with the public about the costs involved and, more specifically, without acknowledging that the scheme is probably not economically feasible unless it is subsidized by container fees designed to discourage Central Valley businesses from using trucks to move their containers to and from the Port of Oakland."
O'Connell said a fee on goods shipped by truck could subsidize the barge program, make barges more economically attractive to shippers and produce environmental benefits. Such a fee could be levied by state air-quality regulators or the Port of Oakland, he said.
The "green" benefits of the barge plan – fewer trucks making long hauls on interstate highways, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting fuel use and relieving roadway congestion – have been lauded by the Obama administration and local officials.
But O'Connell wonders how far shippers' green concerns might last: "You might have a businessman who wants to be a good citizen and do what's right for the environment. But if I'm your competitor and I know I can get my container on a truck and have it on a ship leaving Oakland in two days, that's what I'm going to do."
Most of the federal money awarded to the partnership, more than $18 million, will go to the Port of Stockton, which plans to purchase two new harbor cranes, construct cargo-storage facilities and construct new rail lines. Stockton officials projected that construction and installation will create more than 300 jobs.