Puget Sound ports seek new business from ports still backlogged with containers

With the stacks of cargo containers accumulated during a four-month-long West Coast cargo handling slowdown nearly cleared out, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle are looking for business originally destined for Southern California ports still buried in the container backlog.

“We’re letting the market know that we’re open for business,” said Don Esterbrook, the Port of Tacoma’s chief operating officer, at a meeting of the two ports’ commissions at Sea-Tac Airport Tuesday morning.

Esterbrook said the pace of loading and unloading ships at the two ports has nearly returned to normal.

“We’ve still got a little way to go,” said Esterbrook. “We’ve got five ships remaining at anchor. That’s down from 15,” he said.

The two ports’ marketing teams are hoping to take advantage of the relatively swift recovery from the slowdown by enticing shipping lines to divert more cargo to the Pacific Northwest while Southern California ports remain congested, Esterbrook said.

The Southern California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, have said it may be months before operations there return to normal.

The two ports of Seattle and Tacoma are forming an alliance to jointly operate their container terminals in hopes of regaining market share. That alliance is still in the formative stages, but the two ports are working together already to attract new business.

Esterbrook told the joint commissions that some issues remain at the two ports, specifically terminal gate overcrowding and a shortage of rail cars, but those problems are being swiftly resolved.

The backup occurred when the Longshore Union and the Pacific Maritime Association couldn’t reach a long-term labor deal by the end of October. They had operated since July 1 without a contract. At its peak, the slowdown cut activity by some 60 percent on the docks.

The PMA represents shipping lines and terminals up and down the West Coast. The two sides, with federal help, reached a tentative deal late last month, and the pace of loading and unloading ships returned to pre-slowdown levels. Longshore workers will vote on the proposed pact in mid-April.

Seattle Port Commissioner Tom Albro suggested the ports take temporary measures to speed the flow of containers and to improve capacity substantially during the window of opportunity to win more cargo business.

He suggested, for instance, a temporary suspension of strict air pollution requirements for truck operators serving to port to enable more containers to be hauled away. He also recommended giving terminal operators a one-time break on their contracts which impose more rent when they handle more containers.

Tacoma Port Commissioner and longshore worker Dick Marzano said the two ports will have to show concrete improvements in productivity and reliability to win back business lost during the crisis.

“Some may never come back,” he said.

Marzano said some East and Gulf coast ports are already actively courting some West Coast port customers. There are reports, he said, that the International Longshoremen’s Association, which handles cargo at those ports, is talking about extending its existing labor contract three years before it is due to expire to give shippers an additional measure of certainty that their goods will be handled in a timely manner.

Shippers complained that the West Coast slowdown cost them millions in lost sales, in delayed deliveries and in extra costs for air cargo.

Tacoma Port Commissioner Don Johnson said the ports can’t just publish a slick new brochure, but must be able to demonstrate enhanced productivity to regain old customers and attract new ones.

For instance, if the ports could raise the pace of container crane activities from the present 28 containers per hour to 31, a 10 percent increase, that improvement could speak volumes to customers about how the alliance is dedicated to improving service, he said.

The two ports have scheduled a joint mission to Eastern Washington next week to talk with exporters there who were severely affected by the slowdown.

“It’s going to take more than a handshake and a tea party to convince them we’ll do better,” said Johnson.

After Tuesday morning’s public session, the two port commissions reconvened in a private session to discuss the alliance. Some port watchdogs have complained that those confidential sessions violate the state’s Open Meetings Act. A King County Superior Court judge earlier this year ruled those meetings, conducted under the authority of the Federal Maritime Commission, don’t violate the act. Arthur West, who challenged the meetings’ legality has appealed that judge’s decision to the Washington State Court of Appeals.