Port's Future Rides on Barges

The Port of Stockton is beefing up its infrastructure with improvements to its rail connections, bridges and more

Feb. 23--STOCKTON -- The Port of Stockton has been growing and changing in recent years, beefing up its infrastructure with improvements to its rail connections, bridges and, last year, the launching of a new Marine Highway connecting Stockton to Oakland.

But investment in the port, both public and private, is expected to continue in 2014 and beyond.

"This is not a sleepy little port," port Director Richard Aschieris said. "We have lots of room to grow," he said. "We are very optimistic about the future."

In the past five years, the private sector has invested about $2 billion at the port, Aschieris said, and the next five years could be even more. At the moment, the port is negotiating deals that could bring in an additional $1.8 billion.

The impact of the port on the local economy goes beyond businesses located in the port, itself, said Thomas Pogue, associate director of the Business Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific.

It's a significant and unique piece of the goods movement system in the county. "It adds an important dimension that most places don't have." That provides unique opportunities that can draw companies to invest in doing business elsewhere in Stockton or San Joaquin County, too, he said.

Pogue said he also sees a lot of potential and activity toward growth at the port, itself.

Moving goods is a priority for government agencies in the county, too. "Since the Gold Rush days, this area has been a distribution and logistics center for California," said Andrew Chesley, executive director of the San Joaquin Council of Governments. And the port is part of that, he said.

That importance has helped draw public investment to the port, something that is expected to continue.

This year, construction is scheduled to begin on an extension of the Crosstown Freeway that will allow trucks a direct route to the port without going through the Boggs Tract residential community.

A $13 million federal transportation grant helped create the Marine Highway that opened for business in 2013. The project includes taking barges stacked with shipping containers between Stockton and the Port of Oakland. Besides adding a new way to ship goods at the port, the project is also meant to reduce traffic through Altamont Pass and improve air quality by taking trucks off the road.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, helped bring in the federal grant money and is a vocal supporter of the value of the port. "The port is an economic engine and job creator," he said. "They make smart investments ... They're doing it right."

One of the port's challenges in 2014 is to increase volume on the Marine Highway, to ship enough containers to cover the fixed costs as quickly as possible, Aschieris said. "It's what I call a great race."

The goal is to have two full barges make the round trip between Stockton and Oakland every week, he said. When the highway opened last year, there was a barge every couple of weeks, he said. Now there is one a week. "When you start from zero, it's challenging," he said.

To meet that goal, the port will need more customers like Kloeckner Metals Corp. A tenant at the port for more than 20 years, it uses the Marine Highway to ship steel pipe.

It fits perfectly with the changing business, allowing the company to ship smaller quantities, but do it more frequently, said Bob Bagan, vice president for pipe products in the company's western region. It allows both better service for customers and tighter inventory control, he said. "It allows us to get product to market faster and more efficiently."

Contact reporter Zachary K. Johnson at (209) 546-8258 or [email protected]. Follow him at www.recordnet.com/johnsonblog and on Twitter @zacharykjohnson.

Copyright 2014 - The Record, Stockton, Calif.