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Giant cranes bring questions as well as photo opportunities, including, are they worth it?

Huge cranes arriving by ship bring out the spectators.

Four giant super-post-Panamax cranes arrived at the Port of Tacoma Tuesday evening after a month-long trip from China on the cargo ship Zhen Hua 31. Crowds gathered to view the 295-foot tall behemoths, among the largest cranes on the west coast.
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Four giant super-post-Panamax cranes arrived at the Port of Tacoma Tuesday evening after a month-long trip from China on the cargo ship Zhen Hua 31. Crowds gathered to view the 295-foot tall behemoths, among the largest cranes on the west coast.

No matter how many explanations or assurances are offered, the sight of a ship carrying fully upright container cranes still looks like a capsizing awaiting the next wave, an illustration of what can go wrong when center-of-gravity principles are ignored.

It’s a spectacle that has had lots of people out in the brisk air to witness and photograph the sight of a ship gliding into Commencement Bay with four more super-post-Panamax cranes on the deck, to join the four sent to the Port of Tacoma from their manufacturer in China last year.

Both shipments appear to have made it across the Pacific safely, but spectators shouldn’t put their binoculars down just yet. Instead, they need to train them back across the Pacific to see if they spot any ships coming this way that will actually require the services of those oversize cranes.

The cranes are needed to serve the ever-larger container ships on trans-Pacific routes, and both Tacoma and Seattle are preparing for their increased use. Last month commissioners of both ports, operating as the Northwest Seaport Alliance, approved a major remodeling and reconstruction of Terminal 5 in Seattle, also to accommodate larger ships.

That’s a lot of capacity to chase market share that others are after, too.

At a joint commission meeting in February, Seaport Alliance executive director John Wolfe said that while grabbing additional market share is the long-term goal, the T-5 project is needed just to maintain the business it has.

Container volumes are up year-over-year, Wolfe said, but “we’re losing market share in the last number of years. We need to find a way to turn that trend.”

Taking on big projects like T-5 may be risky, he said, but so is doing nothing and going into competitive battle with the facilities the ports already have.

Wolfe said there are two promising growth opportunities. One is exports. With the federal government’s policies heavy on export promotion, the hope is to send containers back to Asia with something in them.

The other is that the competition — most notably the Canadian ports — is hitting capacity constraints, leaving the Puget Sound ports in a position to capture some of the spillover, provided that they not only have capacity but the right kind of capacity.

Verification-of-capacity concerns comes from a recent report in the Journal of Commerce:

“A surge of cargo in the last month through the port of Vancouver has pushed terminals to their limit, with facilities at 85 percent utilization, compared with a maximum industry standard of 80 percent. That’s caused a doubling of container dwell times at rail facilities.”

(Dwell time is an industry term that basically means a container, or a train, just sitting there.)

The challenge for the regional ports is that the Canadian ports (Vancouver and Prince Rupert) aren’t idle either. Not only are they adding terminal capacity, they’re looking to unsnarl transportation corridors outside port gates. The Canadian government, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and CN railroad recently announced a plan to double-track a section of rail linking import and export terminals to the national rail network. They won’t be giving up market share without a fight.

As for betting on trade growth to sop up capacity, that will depend on trade relations and negotiations and the performance of the American and Chinese economies. Attempting a prognosis on what trade is going to be like this year seems a fool’s errand, what with the near-hourly shifts in trade talks, rhetoric about those talks and the “maybe we will, maybe we won’t” status of tariffs and duties. Imagine trying to base long-term investment decisions on a guess of what trade is going to look like five years from now.

Nonetheless, the ports have. Shipping a giant crane across the ocean is an impressive feat. It will be much more meaningful, if less visually impressive, if those cranes, once installed, have something to do.

■ The questions were raised with last year’s shipment, and they’re worth revisiting this year: Why are we buying cranes from Asia in the first place? Isn’t that something we can do?

The quick answer is, no it’s not. There is no American maker of such cranes.

To quote from one port informational piece, “While the crane structures were produced in China, the components of the cranes — including the spreaders, operator cabs, electronics and brakes — were made in Europe.”

It’s not up to the ports to wait around to see if an American producer emerges, but the fact that this country doesn’t have one is a consequence of letting a country’s manufacturing capacity and capabilities decline. There’s a parallel story in the world of electronics manufacturing, where assemblers have been struggling with a shortage of components. It would be great to have capacity in this country to ramp up production of those items, but it’s not there.

That’s a loss of jobs and economic opportunity, the kind that never shows up in a statistical table but are all too real just the same.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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