Tacoma container traffic up 17 percent in May

A critical business statistic rose for the third month in a row at the Port of Tacoma as container traffic jumped by 17 percent in May.

Whether that increase in business represents a long-term trend or is simply the effect of importers taking precautions against the possibility of a West Coast-wide Longshore strike will be evident later this summer. The present contract between the International Longshore Workers Union and a coalition of shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast is due to expire June 30.

If ongoing negotiations haven’t produced an agreement by then, longtime labor observers expect both sides will extend the existing contract for several more weeks to allow more time to iron out differences. If a strike or lockout happens, the halt in international commerce at West Coast ports could have a serious effect on the economy and industries dependent on foreign goods.

The Port of Tacoma reported this week that its terminals handled 165,053 container units last month compared with 141,002 in the same month last year. Container numbers weren’t the only cargo statistics in positive territory for the year.

Grain exports were another notable plus on the port’s spreadsheet. Those exports have risen by 48 percent for 2014 through May. The port’s Schuster Parkway grain terminal, operated by Temco, has seen a steady queue of bulk carriers anchored in Commencement Bay this year awaiting loading at the terminal. Volume is up in part because the greater availability of grain from the Midwest, which had suffered from drought conditions two years ago. That shortage of grain caused grain-importing nations to shift to other countries such as Australia for grain last year.

Breakbulk cargoes also were above last year’s quantities with 98,428 short tons handled at port terminals through the end of May. That’s a 15.5 percent increase over the same period in 2013.

Auto imports were in positive territory through the end of last month with 71,511 imported through port facilities compared with 63,625 a year earlier. That’s a 12.4 percent difference.

Log exports was the sole major cargo category reporting a downward trend. The port’s docks exported 176,667 tons of logs through May compared with 228,716 through the end of May 2013. Home building activity was reported down in China where many of the exported logs are destined.