International Trade and Ports

Making Everything Shipshape

As Panama Canal Expands, West Coast Ports Scramble to Keep Big Cargo Vessels


TACOMA, Wash. — As construction crews 5,000 miles away are working to widen the Panama Canal to allow much larger ships to sail straight to the East Coast, this historic port city and others along the West Coast are doing everything they can to avoid becoming superfluous.

The Port of Tacoma is determined to keep up its rich import business, which can be traced to the 1880s when chests of tea from Asia arrived at its docks and headed to the East Coast by rail. Port officials know that by the time the Panama Canal opens in 2016, an even newer, larger fleet of cargo ships will be plying the oceans and will be so big they will not be able to squeeze through even the wider channel.

So Tacoma, Seattle and other ports are spending billions to be ready to receive the ships and keep themselves competitive in the overall scramble for foreign trade.

“The ships continue to get bigger, the cranes need to get bigger, and the docks need to be able to handle them,” said Trevor Thornsley, senior project manager for the Port of Tacoma, as he stood along the jagged rebar and broken concrete of a $22 million renovation to shore up the port’s Pier 3.

The work in Tacoma, a major port in this state that likes to call itself the most trade-dependent in the nation, is among dozens of projects being completed in port citiesacross the United States in response to major changes in the world of container imports from Asia.

“Everybody in the supply chain from the manufacturer to the end consumer — that entire supply chain is changing,” said Tay Yoshitani, chief executive of the Port of Seattle. “The port industry is trying to make adjustments.”

Traditionally, America’s West Coast ports have been the gateway to the rest of the country for the growing supply of goods from China and Hong Kong. The ports in Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Long Beach and elsewhere offer much shorter sailing times than Gulf Coast and East Coast ports. But for shippers of some goods, the web of logistics, including trucks and railroads, ends up being less expensive if they go through the Panama Canal.

Even though the West Coast ports are viewing the project to widen the Panama Canal as a major threat, it may not be their biggest challenge, said John Martin, who works as an economic consultant for several ports.

Most imminently, officials at the West Coast ports are concerned about negotiations underway for a union contract, which expires on Tuesday and affects nearly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 ports. In 2002, during contract negotiations, talks broke down and resulted in a bitter battle that shut down shipping along the West Coast for 10 days and sent cargo ships to other ports of call, some of them permanently.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said that contract talks were positive and on track. John Wolfe, the chief executive of the Port of Tacoma, said that while port officials did not have a role in the talks, he, too, was optimistic. “We’ve been down this road before,” Mr. Wolfe said. “We’re all in this together.”

“Everybody in the supply chain from the manufacturer to the end consumer — that entire supply chain is changing,” said Tay Yoshitani, chief executive of the Port of Seattle.CreditMatthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

Besides the union concerns, ports are bracing for an onslaught of changes in the shipping world.

While the widened Panama Canal will allow an all-water route for big ships to the East Coast, the project — originally scheduled to open this year — has been plagued with construction delays. And the authorities have yet to announce toll charges for passing ships. In the end, it might be too expensive for some ships to use.

It is also possible that railroads that move goods from West Coast ports could lower fees to make it more economical for ships to avoid the Panama Canal route.

“The uncertainty as to what’s going to happen with rates is huge,” said Mr. Martin, the consultant, who is president of Martin Associates.

At the same time, sailing patterns may shift as Asian manufacturing continues to move from China to countries to the south, like Singapore and Vietnam, which are actually closer by sea to East Coast ports through the Suez Canal than to West Coast ports across the Pacific.

A new competitive threat has emerged 500 miles north of the United States border with Canada. Tacoma and Seattle are losing market share to the Port of Prince Rupert in British Columbia, just six years old and already doing brisk business with goods headed for the Midwest United States. While the port is nearly at capacity, the Canadian government continues to make major investments in it and is also pursuing a plan to build an export facility for liquefied natural gas that would tap a gas pipeline that is in the works.

For trade with China, Prince Rupert’s appeal is proximity. Prince Rupert is two to three days closer than the western coast of the United States, helping ships cut fuel costs. Another major factor is that Canada’s railroads are offering bargain rates to ship goods from Prince Rupert to Midwestern cities, analysts said. While the railways and truck lines in Canada have a history of labor instability, cargo carriers sailing into the country can avoid taxes levied by the United States government.

Here at the Port of Tacoma, the biggest threat in the past has been the port just 30 miles away in Seattle. The two ports have fought back and forth for decades over shipping business. But the new competition from Canada and elsewhere has brought an unusual alliance.

This year, the two ports for the first time sought permission from the Federal Maritime Commission to share information on operations and rates without violating federal antitrust laws. The ports now are coordinating lobbying tactics as well as construction projects to make sure they’re not duplicating efforts, officials said, and are researching other ways to cooperate.

“In the past 60 years we’ve truly been cutthroat,” said Stephanie Bowman, a commissioner for the Port of Seattle. “We’ve been able to work together and put aside our historical competition.”

In Seattle, the port’s facilities already have undergone $1.2 billion in upgrades through 2012 and plans have been approved for an additional $5 million to upgrade Terminal 5 to get ready for big ships. Tacoma’s Pier 3 project will make it sturdy enough to handle the monster cranes needed to reach across wide berths and unload the big ships.

The expenditures are a gamble. No one knows for sure whether enough of the big ships will come to Seattle and Tacoma to offset the investments in the ports. But Steve Sewell, economic development director for Washington State’s maritime industry, said the preparations were worth it.

“You have to make some investments,” Mr. Sewell said, “and take some risks.”

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