Jon Talton, May 7, 2015, Seattle Times
The new Northwest Seaport Alliance marks a historic achievement in regional cooperation. And it’s just in time. From bigger container ships to falling market share, Seattle and Tacoma have their work cut out for them.
Whatever messy negotiations happened behind closed doors, barring some unlikely outrageous devil detail, the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma have pulled off an amazing feat. With the draft proposal for the new Northwest Seaport Alliance, the two are moving beyond decades of beggar-thy-neighbor competition and going after the real adversaries.
The real adversaries are the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, the ongoing infrastructure improvements at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, changing shipping patterns, and a wider Panama Canal, with East Coast ports hungry for our business.
Another one is shipping companies moving to ever-larger ships. For example, Maersk Line was reported to be ordering 10 container ships that can carry 20,000 twenty-foot-equivalent (TEUs). And we thought 18,000-TEU ships were big (indeed, Maersk earlier had said 18,000 was the ceiling). The danger is these enormous ships will encourage the big lines — under pressure to cut costs and save fuel — to make fewer calls on the West Coast. Who will be left out?
Meanwhile, Tacoma and Seattle combined fell behind British Columbia in container traffic in 2014 for the first time in at least 35 years. This is all the more troubling given the public-private sector effort in Canada to establish a speedy, efficient rail line into the heartland of the United States, which is also the prime customer for the Puget Sound ports in container traffic.
Expanding market share will be the most important goal of the new partnership. Also, Seattle and Tacoma together can more effectively encourage the Legislature to fund transportation projects essential for logistics, especially State Route 167 connecting the Port of Tacoma with I-5. They can also be more effective in reforming the Harbor Maintenance Tax, which penalizes our natural deep-water ports and uses the proceeds to dredge our competition back east.
The Seaport Alliance would mark a tremendous advance in regional competition. Both boards of commissioners can declare victory. But plenty of work must be done.