Tucson became Arizona's first port to service international cargo via rail Friday and industry leaders say it could redefine the region's economy.
Hundreds of people gathered at the Port of Tucson on the city's southeast side to watch the shipment of Chinese pottery arrive from the port in Long Beach.
From here, the products will head out to their final destination after being cleared by U.S. customs. Then, Arizona or Sonora exporters can refill the containers to roll back to California seaports and head out to Asian markets.
"This is what the economy in Arizona needs," said Mike Barclay, owner and director of business development for Shiphause, an Arizona freight-forwarding company. "This is amazing."
It was earlier this year that the Port of Tucson got approval from Union Pacific to service international ocean containers via Long Beach and Los Angeles ports twice a week. It will also send containers from Tucson to the California ports five days a week, said Stefan Baumann, the port's director of business development.
Until now, ocean containers bound for Southern Arizona or Sonora had to be trucked directly to the importer. The empty containers were then returned by truck to the California ports.
For an export shipment, the empty container was trucked to Arizona or Sonora and returned to Long Beach or Los Angeles loaded.
"This is a big day for the Port of Tucson, the Arizona region and Mexico," said Alan Levin, owner of the Port of Tucson. "We've been working on it for years. It's a dream come true."
Levin, 66, founded the company in 1986 and said he is most proud that hundreds of trucks will be taken off the highways by utilizing rail. He noted that a 120-car train, double stacked, means 240 trucks off the road.
"We're now a true end-of-port shop," he said. "We can ship to China without any trucks ever touching the highway."
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was joined by the mayors of Douglas, Nogales and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and hundreds of political and business leaders at the ceremony Friday.
"This is a big step forward," Rothschild said. "This gives us a competitive advantage as a logistics hub. We need to create the industry cluster."
One of the founders of the Southern Arizona Logistics Education Organization (SALEO) said the volunteer organization has been working for six years to promote the industry.
"This is just the beginning," said Al Altuna, who now serves as SALEO's vice president of public relations. "International trade is only limited by the capacity of the industry to handle the volume."
SALEO worked with Pima Community College to develop a curriculum for students interested in the logistics industry.
Classes cover everything from truck driving to warehousing and supply-chain management.
The majority of the inbound international cargo is expected to arrive from Sonora as the Port of Guaymas continues its aggressive expansion.
The seaport, which last year began shipping and receiving international containers, is the fastest growing port in Mexico.
Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at email@example.com or 573-4232.