Peter Callaghan: Tacoma, Seattle ports agree to talk about agreeing

Staff WriterJanuary 23, 2014 

Longshoremen driving straddle carriers move containers to rail at the Port of Tacoma’s North Intermodel Yard in March.

JOE BARRENTINE/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The cooperative agreement between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle that was announced last week is either a) a pretty big deal that will benefit taxpayers and the economy of the state of Washington or, b) window dressing to distract those who have tired of the ports’ ruinous competition.

The answer depends on what the two ports and their leaders do once their request to share information gets the go-ahead from the federal government. The deal, after all, isn’t an agreement to agree, it is only an agreement to talk about agreeing.

And even though the proposal to the Federal Maritime Commission states that the two rivals want the OK to share all sorts of important information including rates of return, terminal rates, charges, leases and contracts with shipping lines, this too may be less than it appears. That list of discussion points only lets the feds know the parameters of what might be shared, it doesn’t commit the two public agencies to actually be that transparent.

And even if they do agree to open their books to the other — to perhaps finally settle the debate over whether Tacoma was giving away the farm when capturing shipping lines from Seattle — they promise to do it all “without adversely affecting interport competition.”

Set aside for a moment how the ports can share all the numbers involved in their financial relationships with shipping lines and other lease-holders without affecting competition between the ports. Just allow for the hope that it might be the beginning of the end of the race to the bottom by Seattle and Tacoma ports.

To translate, it might be that the two public entities will stop putting so much effort into stealing business from one another and start working together to bring business in from elsewhere. Or, in the worst case, combine to keep the business they already have from moving away.

Some pessimism is in order, however, from the rather restrained descriptions of the deal by port leaders. If not for changes in the shipping business and emerging competition from Canada, Mexico and the Panama Canal, they wouldn’t even be to this point. Perhaps this is because the cultures of the two are so different. Perhaps it is because the bitterness of the competition has left hard feelings. Perhaps they downplayed the news to head off fears in Tacoma that this is a prelude to a merger of the two ports.

Brian Bonlender, director of the state Department of Commerce, said he had been in contact with the executive directors of both ports to encourage discussions and offer any help he could provide.

“The threat to long-term viability is British Columbia and the Panama Canal and even Long Beach and Mexico,” Bonlender said. “There is a recognition that that’s where the real competition is.”

Bonlender said he is encouraged by the agreement but acknowledged that there is work to do before any real cooperation becomes a reality.

There remains some hope, as well, that legislation introduced last year by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Washington Democrats, might help. The reform of the harbor tax, collected on traffic shipped through U.S. ports, would end an advantage enjoyed by Canada and Mexico. While the current tax is assessed only at U.S. harbors and used to improve ports, the proposal would place similar fees on containers as they cross the Canadian and Mexican borders on trains or trucks.

For now, that bill seems on a slow track. A Murray spokesman said she and Cantwell are still trying to get a hearing on the bill in the Senate and to get a companion bill introduced in the House.

But the bill could already be fostering improvements in Washington state. When the two senators presented the bill in September, they were supported by Port of Tacoma Executive Director John Wolfe and Port of Seattle Executive Director Tay Yoshitani.

Maybe it set the tone for what needs to happen starting March 7.

peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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