Sluggish Port cargo traffic could get automotive boost

California car culture could help boost cargo traffic on The City's waterfront.

If Port of San Francisco plans pan out, Pier 80 in the central waterfront could become Northern California's newest hub for the import and export of automobiles — including cars built at factories in Mexico as well as locally produced Tesla electric cars shipped to emerging markets in Asia.

Once one of the busiest cargo hubs on the West Coast, the Port has seen cargo traffic steadily wither for decades — a downturn made only worse during the Great Recession, and one that hasn't ended with The City's tech-fueled economic boom.

Cargo traffic has dropped by almost half over the last decade. Only 39 cargo ships docked at the Port in 2013, down from 224 vessels in 2004.

Import of sand and aggregate — two key materials for the mixing of concrete — comprise nearly all of the cargo traffic at the Port today, according to Jim Maloney, the Port's maritime marketing manager.

But private company Metro Ports, which has operated one of The City's dwindling cargo piers since 2008, thinks that car shipping could complement construction and agricultural traffic.

Situated at the end of Cesar Chavez Street near freeway and rail lines, Pier 80, a former container terminal, is the Bay Area's only shipping terminal for breakbulk cargo — goods not shipped via standardized containers, including raw construction materials such as steel and lumber and finished products like automobiles.

The pier occasionally also handles project cargo, such as the boring machines for the future Central Subway, industrial machinery and, in 2012, the 123-car freight train that carried the boats, yachts and other gear needed for the America's Cup yacht races.

Still, acting as the only breakbulk terminal on San Francisco Bay hasn't helped attract cargo traffic for Pier 80.

Continuing a downturn that began during the 2008 financial crisis, the Port only handled 7,000 metric tons of breakbulk cargo in 2014, according to Port statistics, compared to 1.2 million tons of sand and aggregate.

Metro Ports is in negotiations to handle up to 450,000 additional tons of cargo at Pier 80 — particle board made in Canada for local construction, and gypsum and lime used in farming, according to John Allen, Metro Port's director of West Coast business development.

Officials from the Port and Metro Ports are also hoping changes in the automotive industry could help boost cargo business.

Most cars sold in the Western United States are now built in Mexico.

And current import hubs in Southern California are at capacity, which means San Francisco could become a hub for auto imports from south of the border, Maloney told the Port Commission recently.

Material used for building Tesla automobiles, as well as the finished cars themselves, could also go through San Francisco, but Tesla traffic will not likely appear until 2016 or thereafter, officials said.

There's no estimate of how many jobs a newly activated Pier 80 could generate, but any new business would be a welcome boon for labor.

“This place has been dormant for quite some time,” Melvin Mackay, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, told the Port Commission recently.

“It would be nice to get an opportunity to get back to work,” he added. “San Francisco needs to generate revenue. We're kind of lost here.”

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