What Lies Ahead for the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle?

We read a piece over the weekend from the Seattle Times’ Jon Talton that gave us pause for thought.

Talton’s title sets out his premise pretty clearly: “Rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma ports historic, detrimental.” He lays out the history of the Tacoma-Seattle rivalry, a familiar story beginning with the competition to be the western terminus of the Northern Pacific, through the booms of port and rail in both cities, to the current day, with the two cities still competing for the same traffic. Both have ambitious growth plans for the future; the Port of Tacoma just rolled out its new 10-year strategic plan, and Seattle has its own “Century Agenda” goal for container traffic. The Port of Seattle still claims more freight moved than Tacoma, but Tacoma has advantages in potential capacity and proximity to rail, without the use of short-haul truckers, which has become an issue for Seattle.

The argument Talton makes is not a new one, but perhaps it is worth reconsideration: perhaps collaboration, rather than competition would be more advantageous for both ports in the face of global and national trends and events. The Panama Canal will soon be open to larger ships, giving freight bound for the East Coast another option. Canadian ports, subsidized by the government, are making moves to become more competitive in getting goods to the American Midwest. California ports, which may be easier to reach are also making plans to invest for expansion and growth. And general prevailing economic trends aren’t helping much.

Tacoma recently scored a big contract with the Grand Alliance shipping company from Seattle, which was good news locally, ambivalent news regionally, and not really much news further than that. Talton concedes that a regional Seattle-Tacoma Port Authority isn’t likely to be much of a go politically, but concludes with a hope that the two can find a way to deal with each other that can be productive, rather than a race to the bottom.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma are run by smart people who understand the threat and the stakes.

The question is whether they can move beyond a natural rivalry to effectively take on the real competition.

That is a good question. We also have to wonder if Port has any back room, back of their mind planning for a Plan B (or C or D…) in case growth in container traffic just isn’t happening.

As a complete sidebar, we got a chuckle out of this little paragraph from Talton:

Tacoma embraces its industrial identity. People wear T-shirts that say, “Gritty Tacoman.” As opposed to, say, a latte-quaffing, effete Seattleite. This translates into strong backing for the seaport.

Read Jon Talton’s much more detailed assessment of the situation in the Seattle Times.

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I just went through the Panama Canal from Miami-Los Angeles. And one of the things that stuck with me, while listening to the guide describe all of the digging and remodeling (while we sat in line for two hours to go through the current canal), is he said that even after the new Canal is finished, it would take 10 more Canals to equal what the West Coast ports could unload in one day but it’s the “rail system in the United States that gums it all up.” I talked to the Panama guy afterwards, and he was pretty clear that they are betting on the fact that their one-time investment in infrastructure of the new locks will trump anything the United States is going to invest in cross-country rail.

May 9, 2012 at 1:00 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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