The Federal Maritime Commission has given its blessing to the rival ports of Tacoma and Seattle to begin talks and exchanging information aimed at increasing the total maritime traffic in Puget Sound.
FMC Commissioner William P. Doyle said the two ports will be free to begin discussion on terminal operations, container facility planning and management and creating operational efficiencies.
The ports needed the commission's permission to start talks because the commission is charged with overseeing port and terminal business practices to ensure that collaborative activities don't cause substantial increases in prices or decreased competition.
The two ports earlier this year announced their intent to apply for commission approval to exchange information because they were concerned about Puget Sound's dropping shipping market share and competition from ports in Canada and on the East Coast.
Tacoma has seen its container traffic jump in the last two years because it lured shipping consortium the Grand Alliance from Seattle to its Washington United Terminal on the Blair Waterway.
The Port of Seattle said the competition between the two nearby ports wasn't adding to the volume of goods shipped through Puget Sound just moving those goods among ports within the sound.
Puget Sound ports face a disadvantage in competition with Canadian ports for containers shipped by rail to the Midwest because containers landed in Canadian ports don't pay the U.S. Harbor Maintenance Tax that averages about $100 a container.
The two ports want the U.S. to impose a similar tax on foreign containers brought into the U.S. by rail or by truck to even the playing field.
West Coast ports also fear that the widened Panama Canal will allow some shippers to send containers more economically to East Coast ports than off-loading them at West Coast ports and sending them to the East on container trains. That widened Panama Canal is due to open in 2015 or early 2016.