- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The new labor agreement at West Coast ports will bring critical technology to piers from Seattle to San Diego, but the improvements won't be enough to catch up with the world's cutting-edge waterfronts.
Even so, the advances included in the proposed six-year contract will represent a quantum leap at 29 West Coast ports that had remained stuck in a time warp.
"The productivity of the West Coast ports had been lagging for such a long time that it really was becoming an untenable situation," said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation.
"This won't bring the West Coast ports up to speed with the most efficient ports in the world, but it's a major step in the right direction."
Some of the strides included in the contract seem like baby steps in the Internet age.
For instance, the contract allows shipping companies to introduce bar codes and scanners that became staples at supermarket checkout stands years ago.
The contract also allows e-mail to be forwarded to another destination with a press of a button instead of being retyped by a clerk.
"None of the things that they are doing are exactly rocket science," said industry analyst James Winchester of Lazard Freres. "It's better than it was, but in the long run, those ports are still going to be relatively high-cost operations."
Those costs, though, probably won't be enough to bother consumers who save big money by buying merchandise made in Asia, Mr. Winchester said.
Even if there are still disadvantages to using the West Coast ports, shipping companies have few practical alternatives.
Mexican ports can't handle the shipping volume, and shifting cargo to more technically advanced East Coast ports isn't easy because today's vessels are too big to fit through the Panama Canal, analysts and shipping companies said.
The West Coast port changes are designed to process cargo faster and accelerate the delivery of merchandise, food and factory parts. If that happens, it could help raise productivity and increase the nation's economic growth.

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