Tacoma port commissioners on Thursday approved a contract for design work to equip one of its container terminals to handle the biggest container ships now envisioned.
The contract with BergerABAM calls for designing modifications to the port’s existing Pier 3 on the west side of the Blair Waterway north of East 11th street to handle container cranes that can service ships as big as 24 containers wide.
The biggest container ships now being built are the Triple E-Class ships being constructed for Maersk Line in South Korea. Each of those ships will carry 18,000 container units. The Maersk ships will carry 23 containers in each row from one side of the ship to another.
The giant ships, which will be the largest in the world when they’re launched beginning in 2013, will be about 1,200 feet long. Pier 3 is 1,190 feet long. Maersk has ordered 10 of the ships with options for 20 more.
The Port of Tacoma publicly says it is simply updating its Husky Terminal to keep up with technological developments. The cranes now available at that terminal have a reach of 16 to 18 containers wide.
Port insiders say the port is actively courting Maersk to return to Tacoma from Seattle. Maersk was a longtime Tacoma tenant until it left two years ago to join its alliance partner, the French container line CMA CGM.
Maersk hasn’t said where it will use its giant new ships, but maritime authorities expect they will initially be used in the trade between Europe and Asia. They will displace ships now on that route that would then serve other routes.
Whether the huge new ships ever serve the Northwest, the average size of ships calling here is sure to grow, thus the need for larger cranes. The average containership now serving Tacoma can carry about 6,500 container units. New ships arriving this summer will hold about 8,500 container units.
To accommodate the larger cranes, the pier will have to be modified and strengthened to handle higher loads from the larger cranes. Those bigger cranes will run on rails that are 100 feet apart instead 64 feet apart, as are the legs of the existing cranes.
The port expects the project, including permitting and construction, to cost more than $29 million. Construction is scheduled to start in the summer of next year and extend into fall 2014.
The adjacent wharf, Pier 4, also is scheduled for updating. That pier can handle ships of a limited size because it is slanted toward the Blair Waterway instead of being parallel to the waterway.
If a ship is too long, its bow or stern would obstruct the Blair navigation channel in the pier’s present configuration. The port plans to straighten the pier to allow longer ships to call there.