SANTOS, Brazil, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Soy and corn shipments from Santos, Latin America's largest port, face another rough year due to lack of road access to the port, parking lots filled to capacity at registration points, and disregard for truck arrival schedules.
Trucks are already being trapped in line-ups outside the Brazilian port, provoking complaints from residents and grains traders, even though the country's soy crop, which is expected to be record size, is not yet a third harvested.
The Brazilian government is trying to sort out infrastructure bottlenecks and plans to encourage private investment in port improvements, but auctions to award concessions have been delayed.
A visit to Santos on Tuesday suggested the problem may actually be getting worse. Buffer lots, where trucks are required to stop to register or face fines, have been built to reduce the number of trucks sitting on the roads, but there are already long lineups to enter the lots.
"It's a huge waste of time for us," said Wilson Luiz de Almeida Jr., a truck driver, referring to the traffic jams.
Like many others, Almeida confronted the worst part of his 2,000-kilometer (1,250-mile) trip from the interior in the last 40 kilometers: four hours waiting to enter a buffer lot and four more hours to get to the port terminal.
Such delays hit the entire production chain and affect competitiveness and economic growth in Brazil, the world's largest soybean exporter. The National Cereal Exporters' Association (Anec) estimated losses of $2.5 billion for the sector in 2013 due to factors such as the higher freight costs, which stem in part from congestion at the ports.
One businessman in the Cubatão area of Santos, where there are two holding lots, said drivers are not arriving at their scheduled times.
"The demand for export capacity is rising but the roads remain the same," he said, declining to give his name.
Crushing industry association Abiove said on Wednesday that Brazil's soybean exports will likely increase by 4 percent to 44.5 million tonnes this year, with an 88.6 million tonne crop expected this season.
Wondering when he might be able to unload his cargo, driver Jose Carlos dos Santos was not optimistic about 2014.
"This is already the worst year ever for us," said dos Santos, who has 27 years of experience hauling grains to Santos.
On Tuesday, at the very beginning of the soy export season, one of the lots in Cubatão was already receiving 85 percent of its 3,500 truck per day capacity. The second lot, which has a daily capacity of 1,200 trucks, received 1,100.
Authorities are still working to open at least two new registration lots this year, one in Sumare, Sao Paulo, and another in Santos.
Sergio Mendes, the president of Anec, said the whole system is already operating near its limit.
"If it is not perfectly organized, all it takes is one truck to create problems," he said.
Port operators and federal and state authorities have made assurances that the scheduling system will improve logistics at Santos this year. Truck traffic jams last year contributed to export delays at the main ports that led top buyer China to cancel some soybean orders.
Compliance has proved difficult, however, said Luis Claudio Montenegro, director of information at the federal government's port secretariat.
"As long as we have some companies that insist on not obeying the rules, we will have this tumult," he said. "There are vehicles that are arriving two or three days early."
Nothing prevents an exporter from breaking his schedule, especially if doing so is more economically advantageous than the fines of 1,000 to 2,0000 reais per truck that authorities can impose.
Authorities issued their first fine on Wednesday, saying local firm T-Grão Cargo Terminal de Graneis S/A, which operates a terminal of the same name, had 106 trucks that missed their scheduled arrivals at Santos.
The city of Santos, which has long sought to decrease truck traffic so residents and tourists can enjoy nearby beaches, said it saw little reason for optimism.
"We had problems in the early days... if this is only the beginning, and the situation worsens from here, it is quite worrisome," said Jose Eduardo Lopes, the city's secretary of port affairs. (Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer and Roberto Samora; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Peter Galloway)