Federal Maritime Commission gives its blessing to Northwest Seaport Alliance

An alliance designed to bolster the competitive stance of Puget Sound’s two largest ports has won the blessing from the Federal Maritime Commission in a unanimous vote.

Under the alliance proposal approved Wednesday, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, historic rivals for the business of major shipping lines, will merge the management, operations and marketing of their largest container terminals under a joint operating agency known as the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

Implementation of that alliance plan now only awaits formal approval from both ports at an Aug. 4 meeting. While the two ports will market and operate terminals as a single entity, the terminals themselves will remain in the ports’ separate ownership.

“The Pacific Northwest is a key region for inbound and outbound United States cargo, moving cargo not only for the regional trade, but also cargo headed to destinations throughout the entire U.S. Midwest. This alliance will help the region remain competitive into the future,” said FMC chairman Mario Cordero in a prepared statement.

Together the two ports will be the third largest container gateway in the United States.

The rivals have been working on combining their operations for nearly two years as pressure from rival ports in British Columbia and Southern California ramped up.

The ports formerly stole business regularly from each other. In the past decade, the Port of Tacoma’s largest containership customer, Maersk Line, moved to the Port of Seattle when it combined operations with a French container line that created a shared Trans-Pacific service. The Port of Tacoma attracted four containership lines, NYK, OOCL, Hapag-Lloyd, Zim Container Lines, together known as the Grand Alliance, to the port’s Washington United Terminal.

Now the two ports under the leadership of Port of Tacoma chief executive John Wolfe will concentrate at winning new business not from each other but from ports such as Vancouver and Prince Rupert in British Columbia and the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California.

The alliance will allow the two ports to decide how most efficiently to serve a new generation of ultralarge containerships that carry as many as 20,000 container units. Ships now serving the two ports have capacities around 7,000 units.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663