Hidden Benicia: An Inside Look at Benicia’s Port
From the days of the great Matthew Turner and before, oceangoing vessels from around the world have crossed Benicia’s historic waters. So it is today.
Mighty ships of immense magnitude—600 feet long, 100 feet wide, 130 feet tall from the water—pass regularly through the Carquinez, arriving and departing from one of the busiest commercial ports on the West Coast. When one of those floating islands appears, people all along the shoreline pause to watch. It is an impressive sight.
But where do all these monumental “car carriers” go, and what happens when they get there?
The Port of Benicia remains a bit of an enigma to many because it is a port of entry regulated by the TSA, similar to an airport. Public access is restricted for security and safety reasons.
Nonetheless, curious about this impressive yet sometimes misunderstood feature of Benicia life, I called Jimmy Triplett, the senior vice president of West Coast operations at Amports (and a friend). Amports Corporation oversees vehicle processing operations in Benicia and other locations around the U.S. and Mexico.
Automobiles are, in Triplett’s words, “the bread and butter” of Amports’ operations; some 250,000 imports pass through here in a typical year. In the old days, cars were lifted off the ships by crane; now they’re rolled off the decks of vessels that can carry 6,000 to 8,000 cars, depending on their configuration.
And what do all those cars do after they are parked on lots operated by Amports?
Contrary to what many think, they move. They don’t sit. “People seem to think that the same cars they saw in the morning when they’re driving across the bridge to go to work are the same cars they see when they come home at night,” Triplett told me. “In fact the cars are moving all day long, every day. They’re constantly moving. It’s almost like a living organism.”
Two-thirds of those cars say goodbye to Benicia while riding on Union Pacific rail cars, the rest roll down the road on trucks. Their destinations are across the west—around California, up into Oregon, east to Denver and Texas. As an aside, Union Pacific controls a chunk of land where it parks cars too. These tend to be domestics, shipped here from assembly plants in the U.S., waiting (but not long) to be rolled onto an outbound ship to be sold as exports in foreign lands.
Amports controls 145 acres in the port and another 180 acres of what Triplett called “submerged lands”—in other words, what lies below the water. In order to build a pier on top of the water, the company must have a lease on the land below it, he explained.
The huge logistical challenge of making sure all these constantly moving parts work together is one that Triplett enjoys.
“The logistics are really fun,” he said. “It’s like what the kids do when they’re playing a video game. You’re trying to accomplish a goal by making a number of strategic moves.”
He added that his job duties nowadays mainly focus on executive oversight of Amports’ facilities around the West, not just Benicia. The person who makes the company’s daily strategic moves here is longtime general manager Randy Scott.
One big job that Scott, Triplett and others are tending to these days is the rebuilding of the wooden dock that was decimated in last year’s four-alarm fire on the site. The blaze, which was caused by a mechanical failure, tossed off big plumes of black and gray smoke that were seen for miles around. The U.S. Army originally built the dock in 1941 on the eve of World War II. It has since been demolished and will be replaced by a concrete structure.
Toyota, General Motors, Mazda, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche are among the car companies that ship their imports through Benicia.
Recently, however, a newcomer has joined the group: VinFast, the first Vietnamese-built automobiles ever to be sold in the U.S. VinFast makes electrics only and its sole port of entry for the country is Benicia.
Meaning that if you ever see one on the street, know that it first touched down in America not far from where Jack London used to go oyster fishing. Despite what some think, however, Amports does not own any of the VinFasts, Toyotas, Porsches or other makes that pass through its hands.
“No,” said Triplett, gently correcting, “they just touch down here and move on. It’s like saying what’s stored in a warehouse is owned by the warehouse. We don’t own any of the cars.”
Triplett and his wife Lori are longtime Benicia residents.
Married 43 years, they have six children, 16 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Not only that, his loyal coworkers pledge that if something ever comes up, they’ve got his back.
Triplett laughed. “One of my guys likes to say, “‘Don’t worry about ‘em, boss. Our guys know how to pour concrete, and we work near water.”