July 13, 2005--The nation's busiest port complex will soon be open into the wee hours of the morning, as retailers and terminal operators look to ease congestion.

Beginning July 23, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles will be open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will remain open until 3 a.m. on weekdays. The ports are currently open during normal business hours and are closed on weekends. To finance the plan and to encourage importers to do business at night, terminal operators will slap an $80 fee on containers processed during "peak" daytime hours.

While the plan is being supported by many of the largest importers and the National Retail Federation (NRF), it has drawn ire from truckers who complain that they are being forced to work inconvenient hours without adequate compensation.

But terminal operators say they don't have much choice. "We've basically ceased to function effectively Monday to Friday from 8 to 5," said Bruce Wargo CEO of PierPASS, the group created by terminal operators to run the new program. Wargo said the fee would cover the additional expense of keeping the ports open -- an estimated $160 million a year -- and would serve as "disincentive" to prevent gridlock during the day.

Last summer the ports were unable to handle a surge in traffic and dozens of container ships were forced to wait offshore, causing outcry from local residents who complained of pollution and retailers who were concerned about time-sensitive shipments.

Robin Lanier, an NRF transportation consultant who has been involved in lobbying for the plan, said that small and large retailers alike will probably have to absorb some its costs, whether in the form of fees paid to PierPASS or the added expense of working at night. While large importers tend to have their own distribution centers, many smaller retailers rely on deconsolidators, who will be equally affected by the new rules.

Despite concerns expressed by truckers about having to work nights, supporters of the plan argue that it will help the companies in the long run since they are paid by the trip. "The small businesses that run trucking operations will be making more trips and will make more money," said Lanier. "They may not believe it now, but it's a win/win situation for a lot of people."

Regardless of who benefits, any long-term solution to the traffic crunch remains uncertain, as trade from Asia continues to grow rapidly. "Even if people move to nighttime operations, the day side could still become congested," Lanier added.