The major backlog at one of America's busiest ports has been worsened by strict zoning laws that limit where empty shipping containers can be stacked after being unloaded.

Until officials in Long Beach, California, issued an emergency order this weekend to temporarily relax those rules, it was illegal for trucking companies to store more than two shipping containers on top of one another in their yards. That's contributed to a massive bottleneck at the terminal yards of trucking companies serving both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach—a bottleneck that's being felt in supply chain shortages across the whole country.

As Ryan Petersen, CEO of Flexport, a logistics firm, explained in part of a detailed Twitter thread over the weekend, the artificial limitation on stacking shipping containers means there is no more room for empty containers in some trucking yards:

In short, getting the two major ports to operate around-the-clock—as the White House has urged them to do—doesn't mean much if there is nowhere for the unloaded shipping containers to go. "It's a true traffic jam," writes Petersen.

There doesn't seem to be any safety-based reason for such a policy, as shipping containers are routinely stacked higher at other ports and while being carried across the open sea. Long Beach's prohibition on stacking more than two-high is "an aesthetic measure intended to preserve visual sightlines in the neighborhood," according to The Maritime Executive, a trade publication.

Those rules won't be enforced for the next three months under an emergency order issued this weekend. Now, trucking companies and warehouses will be allowed to stack up to four containers vertically—effectively doubling their capacity. "The city will work during the next 90-day period to assess the situation and effectiveness of this solution and any impacts on the surrounding areas," Long Beach officials said in a statement.

So there you have it. All it takes to get small, temporary relief from California's excessive zoning regulations is a national supply chain crisis that threatens to ruin Christmas.

But the restrictive zoning rules in Long Beach and the backups they've caused at the port don't just highlight the unintended negative consequences of government policy. The situation also demonstrates how difficult it is for the government to actually solve the supply chain issue—and not just because the head of the federal Commerce Department seems to be confused about the difference between "supply" and "demand."

The bigger problem is that you can't move shipping containers simply by throwing money at them. "With Lehman [Brothers, the financial firm that collapsed in 2008, triggering the subprime mortgage crisis] the government could just print tons of money to flood the banks with liquidity," Petersen told Bloomberg on Sunday. "Here we need real-world solutions."

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