Seattle Port Faces Challenges, Wants to Help Ag Exports

By Dan Wheat, April 25, 2013, Capital Press

The Port of Seattle wants to help cherry, apple and hay exporters but faces many challenges it fears is causing it to slip in global competition.

Pacific Northwest hay exporters have in recent years been switching to Los Angeles and Oakland ports, where shipping costs to China can average one-third the rate from Seattle and Tacoma.

Stemilt Growers Inc., the nation’s largest fresh cherry shipper, trucks cherries to Los Angeles and Canada for air export during cherry season because its cheaper and there’s greater cargo capacity than at Sea-Tac International Airport, Dave Martin, Stemilt export sales manager, told Seattle port commissioners.

“It’s tough to get cargo through the system (at Sea-Tac) at peak times. Cherries will be stacked on the tarmac for hours over there,” Martin said.

Tay Yoshitani, Port of Seattle CEO, replied it would be hard to justify a permanent cold storage facility at the airport for the two-month cherry season but said a temporary facility might help.

The port’s meeting with the tree fruit industry in Wenatchee, April 24, was the second of seven trade and tourism meetings port commissioners held over three days in Ellensburg, Wenatchee, Moses Lake, Spokane, Walla Walla, Kennewick and Yakima.

The group “got an earful” from hay exporters in Ellensburg about high rates set by shipping lines, said John Creighton, a Seattle port commissioner.

It can cost on average $1,000 per container to ship hay to China from Seattle versus $300 from Los Angeles ports, Jeff Calaway, president of Calaway Trading Inc., Ellensburg, has said.

In Wenatchee, Tom Albro, Seattle Port Commission president, said the port wants to triple air cargo through Sea-Tac and increase ocean shipments from Seattle’s harbor.

That fits with increasing export needs as Washington produces larger apple and cherry crops, said West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers.

Washington likely will export a record 39 million boxes of apples this season, said Todd Fryhover, Apple Commission president.

The need could be for 20 million more boxes in 2014, Mathison said.

“Mexico is our largest export market at 10 million so the earth needs to produce two more Mexico markets in the next 23 months. That’s the challenge we face. Our need will double in 24 months. We will ship them through our ports or find other ways to move them,” Mathison said.

Albro said the port will have to work to attract 25,000 more inbound refrigerated containers to ship out 20 million more boxes of apples.

The answer for apples and hay, Yoshitani said, is more containers from more imports.

Northern Asia is increasingly shipping goods to the U.S. through the British Columbia ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert because they are closer and don’t have a $70 to $200 per container U.S. harbor maintenance tax, Yoshitani said.

The port is seeking congressional action to apply the harbor tax to the Canadian and Mexican borders to level the playing field.

The port needs state help to improve roads to the port and Sea-Tac and needs to lobby international cargo carriers, Yoshitani said.

The Port of Tacoma only broke even by lowering rates to attract three ocean carriers away from Seattle, said Bill Bryant, Seattle port commissioner. As a result, the Port of Seattle lost $125 million in business, he said.

A serious look at joint management of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle is needed for both to be able to compete better globally or “Rupert and Vancouver will eat our lunch,” Bryant said.

Local and state government need to treat the Port of Seattle like a “critical asset” instead of pursuing a “stupid” proposal to build a basketball arena near Terminal 46 that will only increase congestion and make port access more difficult, Albro said.

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