Ports schedule update on alliance Tuesday

The port commissions of Washington’s two largest ports will meet Tuesday — both in public and behind closed doors — to discuss progress toward the two former rivals merging their cargo operations.

The public meeting at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s International Conference Center is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. The private session between the two, 5-member port commissions is set to start an hour later.

The ports are meeting in private under the auspices of the Federal Maritime Commission, which granted them anti-trust approval to plan joint operations. The ports have contended federal law gives them the right to hold joint meetings privately, and at least one state superior court judge agrees. That King County Superior Court judge ruled earlier this year that an open government advocate who challenged the meeting’s confidential nature didn’t have standing to bring his suit and that the meetings were proper under federal law.

Those private sessions, which open government advocate Arthur West of Olympia contends violate the state Open Meetings Act, are now the subject of an appeal.

West said it may take as long as a year for the appeals court to gather documents, hear the case and issue its opinion. He said he may ask the court to consider prohibiting the private sessions while the appeal is pending.

The two ports have been meeting from time to time for more than a year in confidential sessions to frame the alliance that will join their cargo operations under one administration.

The idea behind the alliance is to strengthen the two ports’ competitive stance against new competitors in Canada and Mexico and on the East and Gulf coasts. The Pacific Northwest has lost market share in the container traffic business as ships increase in size and as shipping lines opt for foreign ports to avoid the federal Harbor Maintenance Tax of about $100 per container levied on containers arriving in the U.S.

Shippers can avoid that tax by landing their containers in ports such as Prince Rupert and Vancouver in Canada and transporting them by rail to the Midwest. West Coast ports have been lobbying without success for congress to impose the tax at the point of entry into the U.S. regardless whether that is a U.S. port of a land border crossing where trains or trucks carrying the containers from foreign ports enter the U.S.

Among the topics to be discussed in Tuesday’s public session are the ports’ progress in recovering from a four-month-long container handling slowdown that sprang from a dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. The PMA represents shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast. The ILWU and the PMA have operated without a long-term contract since July 1. Union members are scheduled to vote on that tentative agreement in mid-April. In the meantime, waterfront container handling has resumed its normal pace.

The slowdown, which the PMA blamed on the union, and which the union blamed on terminal mismanagement, cost both importers and exporters substantial business. Containers jammed up at the terminals cutting retailers and manufacturers off from their imported goods and parts and delaying exports of perishable vegetables, Christmas trees and other crops headed to foreign markets.