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Port of Stockton

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In the 1930s, the Port of Stockton – located on the San Joaquin River in north-central California east of San Francisco Bay – handled agricultural products for California’s massive Central Valley farming industry, but then the construction industry grew.

“It used to be we were pretty invested in construction materials,” relates Jeff Wingfield, the port’s director of environmental, government and public affairs. “Cement was our No. 1 commodity for years. Then in the early 2000s – much to the credit of our port commissioners and director – they directed the staff to diversify much more than we were, and thankfully they did, because in 2007 or 2008, cement just dried up.

“It was weird going into that recession,” Wingfield recalls. “All the construction projects just stopped. At one time, we were doing 2 million metric tons a year of cement, and that went down to nothing. But in the meantime, the port had started to diversify into more agriculture, alternative fuels, different construction materials such as pipe and steel, and rice, which is part of the agricultural industry. Those are our major commodities. Rice production in the Central Valley is huge; a lot of it is grown around the Sacramento area, where there are thousands of acres of rice fields.”

Each shipment of rice totals 12,000 to 13,000 metric tons. The break-bulk cargo of rice is shipped in giant sacks that measure up to 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide. “We have a bridle that we hook up and we can load 18 of these giant sacks into the ship hold at one time,” Wingfield says.

The port is situated at the crossroads of the West Coast. “I would say our biggest advantage here in Stockton is that you have the confluence of a federal shipping channel, you’ve got two major adjacent rail yards – the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe – and you’ve got the major north/south interstate on the western U.S. running almost over the Port of Stockton, which is Interstate 5,” Wingfield points out. “Then you’ve got access to Highway 99 and Highway 4. It’s all these transportation corridors coming together. It’s a perfect place.”

Record Year

The Port of Stockton includes warehouse storage and handling facilities for dry and liquid bulk materials, and facilities and equipment to handle break-bulk and containerized cargoes by land or sea. Port officials report handling 231 ships during 2014, an increase of more than 25 percent from the previous record of 182 ships set in 2012. It also is up from the 181 ship visits in 2013.

Cargo totals for the port were 4.1 million metric tons, up from 3 million metric tons in 2013, which is the largest cargo tonnage recorded at the port since 2005, when shippers moved 6.5 million metric tons. Even bulk cement shipments were more than 100,000 tons in 2014, up from near zero during the Great Recession.

Some of the project cargo in non-standard sizes shipped from Italy through the Port of Stockton includes manufacturing equipment for a plant being built by Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer. The cargo was loaded at the port onto trucks for final shipment.

The Port of Stockton includes 7 million square feet of covered storage. Its operating acreage is approximately 2,000 acres, which includes Rough and Ready Island that the port took over from the U.S. Navy in 2000, with another 2,000 acres located downriver.

“That was a game-changer for us,” Wingfield says. “We went from 600 acres to 2,000 acres overnight. The former Navy base had seven berths. It had millions of square feet of covered storage and warehouses, and then another 1,300 acres of open space. There’s not too many ports on the West Coast that still have developable land like the Port of Stockton does.”

The base, now known as the port’s west complex, served as a communication station for many years and was transferred to the port with special legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton. “It was an early transfer so we could put it right to use for economic development for Stockton and the San Joaquin region,” Wingfield says. “Within the last five years, we’ve had over $2.5 billion of private capital investment on that island. So it has done the job it was set out to do, to provide economic stability for this region.”

Ships to Rails

A new cargo was unloaded at the Port of Stockton this past December – 480-foot-long bundles of steel, each filled with five railroad rails. A specially built ship called the Pacific Spike that had sailed with the rails from Japan used its three built-in, 50-ton cranes to place each rail bundle on six railcars at a time. The bundles are stacked on the railcars three high and two rows across.

“These long rail segments are brought into the port, welded and then sent out onto specialized railcars,” Wingfield explains. “Called ribbon rail, they’re the single longest rail sections anywhere in the world.”

The approximately 20,000 metric tons of steel rail will be used by the Union Pacific Railroad for track replacement and expansion throughout the West. The rails were moved from Rough and Ready Island’s dock approximately one-quarter mile to another part of the island for storage until an $18 million facility is completed early this year to weld them into quarter-mile lengths.

“We’ve got probably $1.5 billion more of capital investment projects that are in the planning phase, and I want to say about 700 additional acres available for development on the west complex,” Wingfield says.

Ships to Highway

Another company that benefits from the Port of Stockton is Kloeckner Metals Corp.’s western pipe products division in Huntington Beach, Calif., south of Long Beach, Calif. “Kloeckner Metals is one of the largest steel distributors in the world and No. 3 in the USA,” says Bob Bagan, vice president of pipe products–western division. “Our pipe is produced around the world and shipped into various ports, and Stockton is a major facility for us. The port provides a central location and good services and support. Because it is not as large a port as others, we are able to receive our pipe in a very good time frame.

 “The Port of Stockton offers a prime location to ship our pipe to the geographical areas we serve,” Bagan continues. “The team at the port provides services well beyond paperwork and forms – they work with us to solve problems as they arise. Their overall performance has been wonderful.” Bagan says he looks forward to the reengagement of the port’s M-580 barge program. 

“We just finished a demonstration project where we were bringing in containers by barge from the Port of Oakland,” Wingfield says. “We were doing that to try to reduce truck traffic on I-580 between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. We wanted to do a demonstration to make sure it would work if we decided to continue, and it did work. We modeled it after a successful container-on-barge project in Virginia.”

The Port of Stockton is in the process of requesting five years of funding for the project from public or private sources. “We received funding from the federal government to purchase two cranes and some of the infrastructure, but we didn’t get any operational funding,” Wingfield says. “So we are now in the process of trying to secure that so the industry understands that this is a long-term project they can get behind and invest in. We still are in discussions to move containers by barge. That project is currently on ready reserve while we look for funding partners.”

Among the advantages of the program are reducing traffic congestion in the Bay Area. “It can be a nightmare,” Wingfield says of the traffic. “They’ve also got significant wait times at the terminal at Oakland that they can potentially avoid if they utilize the barge. There are also air quality benefits – an 80 percent emission reduction using a barge vs. the traditional trucking method. We are working to make it as cost-competitive as possible. It was comparable, but we are looking to tweak it. We really need to incentivize this and make it something that the shippers can’t pass up. It’s in the works.”

Port Improvements

The Port of Stockton is dredging berths to increase the capacity of the ships using it. “We are in the process of improving our infrastructure,” Wingfield says. “We’ve been working on dredging the port berths for a number of years since the Navy transferred the island to us, and we have been successful at doing that. We are studying deepening the ship channel with the Army Corps of Engineers, not to bring in bigger ships but to allow the ships we are bringing in now to be fully loaded and more efficient. Right now, we can bring in up to a Panamax-class vessel, but it cannot be fully loaded because there’s not enough draft – they would sit too low in the water fully loaded. So it would just allow us to put additional cargo onto the vessels and reduce emissions.”

The port also is improving its rail capacity and truck access. The Navy Drive railroad undercrossing will be widened to accommodate four lanes of traffic and lowered to allow higher clearances for vehicles. A nearly mile-long flyover will be constructed and a second set of tracks built. 

Environmental Projects

The Port of Stockton is heavily involved in environmental restoration projects at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, which is approximately 30 miles downstream from the port. “We are using some of the dredge material to establish sand dune habitat for an endangered butterfly and two endangered plant species,” Wingfield explains. 

 Another project the port has developed is installing boxes for owls to nest in at the port. The port also is working with other water users in the area to increase the historic dissolved oxygen shortage in the San Joaquin River. 

Efforts to eliminate water hyacinth from clogging the shipping channel are continuing. With all these efforts to improve the port, Wingfield points out what he thinks is the port’s strongest attribute. “I think that we’ve got a pretty special team here that has a get-it-done type of attitude,” he comments. “Where a lot of people see roadblocks, we see opportunities to figure out a problem. I would say just our overall attitude makes us special. We have got to be good at what we do – we have to convince shippers to bypass five other ports to get to us. So you’ve got to get employees with a can-do attitude that can work well together and make things happen.” 

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