By John Gillie, January 24, 2014, The News Tribune
For the first time in six years, the Port of Tacoma is again the largest container port in the Northwest, taking the crown from the Port of Seattle.
New year-end figures from both ports show the Port of Tacoma handled 1.892 million container units last year. That compares with the Port of Seattle’s total of 1.57 million container units in 2013.
That shift was caused in large part by the move of the Grand Alliance containership consortium in July 2012 from Seattle to Tacoma. That alliance brought four new container lines to the Port of Tacoma, NYK Lines, Hapag-Lloyd, Zim and OOCL. Last year was the first full year those four lines called on Tacoma.
The two ports have traded places several times in the last two decades as shipping lines moved from one port to the other.
The Port of Tacoma wasn’t crowing about regaining the title. The two ports last week agreed to seek permission from the Federal Maritime Commission to trade information and hold talks about how Puget Sound ports can become more competitive in the shipping business.
The total number of container units handled in the two ports last year was 3.466 million down from 3.596 million in 2012 and 3.526 million in 2011.
The two ports are facing increasingly strong competition from Canadian ports such as the Port of Prince Rupert whose government-subsidized terminals are winning new business from shipping companies handling cargoes bound for the U.S. Midwest.
For the Port of Tacoma, the nearly 1.9 million containers handled last year moved the port back toward the 2.1 million peak it handled before the recession. When the Port of Tacoma’s biggest container line customer, Maersk Line, moved to the Port of Seattle several years ago, and overall container imports to the U.S. decreased because of the recession, Tacoma’s container volume fell to 1.455 million in 2010.
In addition to the threat posed by Canadian ports, Puget Sound ports are battling the trend of container lines consolidating shipments in larger, more efficient ships calling at fewer ports.
The opening of a wider Panama Canal in 2015 also poses a threat to Northwest ports because the larger canal will allow bigger ships to take containers directly to the East Coast.
The container business wasn’t the only category where the Port of Tacoma saw stronger results in 2013. Log shipments were up 13.8 percent. Auto imports jumped by 8.2 percent. Vessel calls increased by 15.6 percent to 1,278. Gypsum volumes were up 7.9 percent.
Not all categories exceeded 2012 numbers. Grain tonnage exported was down almost 43 percent. A dry year in the Midwest in 2012 caused foreign buyers to import grain from other exporters last year, but volumes are returning to normal this year.