Posted Feb 20, 2017
By Joe Goldeen
Anyone who travels Interstate 5 past downtown Stockton and looks west is well aware of the Port of Stockton with its massive, odd-shaped structures and, if you’re lucky, an ocean-going ship unloading at the docks.
But it didn’t take much to get lucky in 2016, with 232 ships sailing into the port — the second-highest number in the past six years, according to longtime Port Director Rick Aschieris.
“We’ve really grown to be an important part of the economic foundation of not just Stockton but San Joaquin County and this whole part of Northern California,” Aschieris said.
For many years, the port has stood as the reliable engine of commerce for Stockton, most recently supporting some 5,500 jobs around the county that generate approximately $180 million in salaries and benefits.
After 84 years of serving ocean-going vessels — the SS Daisy Gray was the first to arrive with a load of lumber on Feb. 2, 1933 — the port has served as the city’s window to the world ever since, increasing its trade relationships to more than 55 countries.
The products that come through the port — while typically not those used every day by your average consumer — play a critical role in the region and the entire West. More than 90 percent of all the fertilizer — both dry bulk and liquid fertilizers — used in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley comes through the port.
Another product, cement, had come back strong in the past couple of years.
“In 2014, we had six cement ships. This past year, we had 20,” Aschieris said. “That’s a lot of cement.”
And while the volume of one product — low-sulfur coal — has decreased significantly (down about 1 million tons in the past one or two years), the increased volume in steel imports is filling the void.
“We had more steel ships than anything else this past year; 43 steel ships coming from a variety of places in Asia, primarily Japan and Korea,” Aschieris said.
Mostly, the loads consist of 480-foot-long rails that go directly to a port-based facility operated by Union Pacific Railroad where three of them are welded together to create super-long rails more than four football fields long with just two welds that are shipped out via rail throughout the Western United States.
“That’s a good project that has been operating for over a full year now,” Aschieris said.
Heading outbound, the Valley’s rice farmers shipped just under 160 tons of bagged rice to Japan, about the same as last year but significantly more than two years ago.
The port has continued to work on major infrastructure projects that improve its roadways and rail lines for greater efficiency. That got a major boost recently with the completion of the mile-long extension of the Crosstown Freeway to Navy Drive, taking trucks away from the Boggs Tract residential neighborhood.
It also completed dredging the channel down to 35 feet along the docks on Rough and Ready Island, matching the depth of the Stockton Deep Water Channel for the first time since the port acquired the island from the federal government in 2000.
Aschieris also noted that private investment in the port has not slackened in recent years. Since the economic downturn of the past decade, more than $2 billion in private-sector investment has been made in port properties.
“It’s not dramatic, but it’s positive,” he said.
Continuing that trend, he said he is involved in different stages of negotiating a number of leases that, if they all work out, could add up to another $1.5 billion in new projects at the port over the next four to five years.