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Traffic Conditions Bumper-to-Bumper At National City Marine Terminal

Every day, the Pasha Group choreographs a dance of sorts on the asphalt of the National City Marine Terminal.

Automobiles go in. Autos go out. Ships enter stage right, railcars and 18-wheel trucks enter stage left.

Generally, the drill goes like this: Unload the auto from the ship. Park it somewhere on 160 acres of waterfront land. Add accessories, if the customer wants. Load the vehicle onto a truck or railcar. Then get it off the property, because there are plenty more on their way.

Pasha, based in Marin County with an office in National City, plans to repeat that drill hundreds of thousands of times this year.

The company moved 360,000 vehicles through National City in 2006, and plans to move 450,000 in 2007. There will be more in 2008, said John Pasha, general manager of Pasha’s National City operation.

Privately held Pasha does not disclose revenue. But figures from its landlord illustrate the growth of the business.

The San Diego Unified Port District expects to receive $9 million in revenue from auto processing this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $12 million in the next year, said Ron Popham, senior director of maritime at the port. That reflects “a huge jump” in the number of cars processed, Popham said.

What’s so special about shipping through the San Diego area? An automaker can save up to two weeks by avoiding the Panama Canal, instead unloading cars in National City and shipping them overland to their destinations, said David Nagy, one of Pasha’s top managers in National City.

Pasha handles such foreign makes as Hondas, Acuras Volkswagens and other brands. On a recent Saturday, workers were driving Audis, one after another, on surface streets between parking lots. Wrapped in white plastic, they came like a parade of mummies.

The latest new business comes from Mazda.

In October, Pasha announced it will process 85,000 to 100,000 Mazdas yearly in National City. Traffic will be a mix of imports coming to the mainland, and U.S.-built products headed to Hawaii.

Representatives of Pasha and Madza declined to discuss financial terms of the deal, or its duration , though a Mazda spokeswoman in Irvine said the partnership will continue into the next decade.

It was a change of pace for Mazda, which for three decades sent its autos through Port Hueneme in Ventura County.

After considering other ports between San Diego and San Francisco, Mazda chose National City. National City offers improved rail service, and Pasha offers stability and greater flexibility, said spokeswoman Danica Laub.

Half the Mazdas are trucked off to destinations in Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico. The other half leave by rail to the Dallas-area terminal of Midlothian, Texas.


Growing A Business

Pasha began its National City operations in 1990, when it processed 30,000 Isuzus. Since then, National City has taken business from Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are increasingly dominated by container traffic, and the Bay Area.

What was a 30-acre operation in 1990 now takes up 160 acres.

BNSF, the Texas-based railroad that serves National City and owns some terminal land, invested in a $23 million upgrade 10 years ago, increasing the terminal’s capacity to 120 railcars.

In 2006, the railroad handled 9,287 railcars containing 117,000 U.S.-bound autos, according to a BNSF spokeswoman. There is also traffic moving the other way, to Hawaii and Asia. BNSF delivered 1,783 railcars of autos to the terminal in 2006.

Other automobiles travel via Union Pacific rails to Mira Loma, in Riverside County. They finish the trip to National City on Interstate 15 aboard 18-wheel car carriers. Chrysler uses this arrangement to get its cars to Hawaii.


Just In Time

The National City Marine Terminal is many things, but it is not a storage yard. In 1999, Hondas lingered on the property for seven days, Pasha said. Now it’s typical for cars to stay 48 hours.

On a recent Tuesday, with two ships in port, there were 500 people at the National City terminal. They include 200 stevedores, who unload the ships, and 220 Teamsters who provide services after the cars are unloaded.

Depending on the customer, Pasha will install window stickers and accessories and perform quality inspections.

Inside a big warehouse with low-hanging fluorescent lights, worker Luis Moreno tended to a Mazda, making sure the lights and turn signals worked. Close by is a parts cage with pallets of spare batteries and tires.

The terminal has two carwashes, a paint shop and its own street sweeper. Sand blows from the Silver Strand onto the property, 16 tons a year, Nagy said. “They’re constantly sweeping this place like Disneyland,” he said.


Change In The Air?

Nagy noted that Pasha will send its 3 millionth car through National City by the end of 2007.

The first million took 10 years, the second million four years, and the third million will take less than three years.

With all this growth, however, come questions about whether auto processing, and the neighboring lumber import operation, are the best uses for the National City Marine Terminal.

Some have suggested a sports arena near the site.

The port’s Popham sits in the middle of the debate and vowed to listen to all people with an interest in it. Port commissioners will hear a discussion of the issue in July.

There is also the option of making the property more appealing to the auto importers. Pasha executives complain that they need more room, and have talked about building parking garages on site.

That raises several questions, Popham said. Is a parking garage even a viable proposal? If so, who would pay for such a project? Who would finance it? When would be the best time to build?

“They don’t pencil right now,” Pasha said of the parking structures. But the executive brings up the possibilities of the next 15 years, including trade with China.

China trade or the NBA or both? Who knows what will become of this crazy dance on the asphalt?


Related Story: Roll-On, Roll-Off Ships Serve as Seagoing Parking Garages

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