What’s true of nature is true of maritime shipping: you adapt, or you die. That’s the compelling logic behind the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a new partnership of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.
The two port commissions announced the terms of the new partnership Wednesday (after far too many secret meetings). Now there’s a comment period. If all goes well, the alliance will become a reality come August.
Our comment: We would have been highly suspicious of a partnership 15 or 20 years ago. Tacoma and Seattle were rivals for many decades, vying to steal each other’s cargo traffic. Big money and high-paying jobs were at stake.
Today, a close, coordinated relationship is a necessity. The two ports now share too many common threats and shared interests to go it alone. They also have many opportunities to boost each other’s fortunes.
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Combined, the Seattle and Tacoma constitute the third largest port in America. But it’s a shrinking third. Their overall market share was 15 percent in 2000; now it’s 10 percent – a 33 percent decline. Ports in British Columbia, Mexico and southern California are mounting a ferocious challenge.
The Panama is doubling the size of the Panama Canal, which will allow much larger ships to bypass the West Coast and cruise directly to ports on the East Coast.
Puget Sound terminals are not geared to efficiently handle today’s biggest ships. The average cargo vessel now calling on the two ports carries the equivalent of 6,000 20-foot containers. The monsters now being built carry as much as 20,000. To persuade shipping lines to bring those megaships to Tacoma and Seattle, the ports must create terminal infrastructure in a coordinated way and market it jointly.
Together, the ports can work more effectively with the region’s increasingly congested railroads, whose efficiency determines whether Puget Sound cargo gets to places like Chicago at a competitive pace.
They can also present a united front to the state and federal government. They need relief from the federal harbor maintenance tax, which siphons money from the deep-water Northwest ports to subsidize the dredging of shallow ports and waterways on the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast. The tax averages $100 per container – money that shippers don’t pay when vessels unload in Canada instead.
The ports have critical business with the Washington Legislature right now. Lawmakers have been dawdling with a bill that would, among other things, help speed freight shipments by connecting state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma.
What the alliance isn’t is as important as what it is.
The historic concern has been that the Legislature would simply merge the two ports, leaving Tacoma a junior partner to politically dominant Seattle. Instead, the Seaport Alliance will leave both ports independent and manage only container shipping. They will retain their own governing bodies.
The ports will jointly manage and market maritime cargo operations. If anything, Tacoma will be the leading partner. In recent years, it has handled as much container traffic as Seattle – and usually more. And Tacoma is simply more interested in its working waterfront. Seattle is less connected to its own port, which is overshadowed there by the tech sector and various cultural fascinations, such as Hempfest, that have little to do with gantry cranes.
Tacoma’s position in the new arrangement is evidenced by the fact that John Wolfe, the CEO of the Port of Tacoma, will also serve as the executive of the Seaport Alliance. This is a deal Tacoma can live with, and both Seattle and Tacoma can prosper by.