Seattle-Tacoma volume recovery lags rival Canadian traffic


Bill Mongelluzzo, May 19, 2015,

Container traffic in Seattle-Tacoma returned to normal in April as the vessel and container backlogs that had developed over four months of labor slowdowns dissipated. Total container volume was down only 0.3 percent from April 2014.


However, in what could be an indication of a permanent loss of market share due to the labor disputes surrounding the coastwide International Longshore and Warehouse Union contract negotiations, Seattle-Tacoma’s neighbors to the north, Vancouver and Prince Rupert, Canada, experienced double-digit growth in April.


Seattle and Tacoma now report their combined cargo volumes under the newly-formed Seaport Alliance. The port complex in April handled 288,945 20-foot containers, a slight drop from the 289,761 TEUs handled in April 2014. International imports declined 4.1 percent but international exports increased 8.3 percent from the same month last year.


All U.S. West Coast ports lost market share since late 2014 as a result of labor disputes involving the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association. The PMA stated that suddenly on Oct. 31 crane productivity in Seattle-Tacoma plunged from 26 to 28 moves per crane, per hour, to below 20. PMA said the reduced productivity continued until a tentative contract was reached on Feb. 20. Employers responded by eliminating costly night and weekend work. The ILWU on Friday is scheduled to release the results of its ratification vote for the new contract.


As vessels backed up at anchor and containers choked the marine terminals beginning in late 2014, importers and exporters diverted some shipments to Vancouver and Prince Rupert, which is located 500 miles north of Vancouver. Both ports have intermodal rail service to Chicago, which is also the prime destination of containers that move through Seattle-Tacoma.


The vessel and cargo backlogs that had built up at the Puget Sound ports during the winter months were mostly cleared by the end of March, and March was an unusually strong month for Seattle-Tacoma. It appears that cargo flows began to return to normal in April.

However, some of the cargo diversion may be permanent, judging from the container volumes moving through the Canadian ports in April. According to numbers published on the ports’ websites, total container traffic in Prince Rupert in April was up 35 percent from April 2014. Containerized imports increased 31.4 percent and exports increased 40.4 percent. Approximately two-thirds of Prince Rupert’s container volume moves to or from the U.S.


Vancouver is less dependent upon the U.S. market, but its total container volume in April nevertheless increased 15 percent over April 2014. Containerized imports were up 20 percent and exports increased 9 percent.


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