Spokane Journal of Business

Big ships bring waterfront changes


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The Longshoremen’s work slowdown that snarled West Coast ports for nine months is over, leaving behind bitter memories and billions in economic damages. But the global trends that foreshadowed that port disruption remain.

Big container ships are coming to Washington ports and they are behemoths. A decade ago, the world’s largest container ship sailing into the ports of Seattle and Tacoma carried 9,600 20-foot containers. Today’s ships carry nearly 20,000 containers.  

The widening of the Panama Canal will make these mammoth vessels even more attractive to shippers looking to save fuel and cut costs. But their massive size requires deeper moorages and docks capable of unloading containers much quicker. That means automation. Ports must install larger cranes and state-of-the art computerized cargo handling systems.

Today’s benchmark is the world’s most efficient port in the United Arab Emirates which moves an average of 138 containers per ship per hour. Comparatively, the Port of Los Angeles moves 80 per hour. The difference is port officials at Jebel Ali invested heavily in automation and technology to serve the megaships, including a new $850 million container terminal.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle are the third-largest container gateway in North America. Martin Associates estimates that the two ports’ marine cargo operations supported more than 48,000 jobs in 2013, generating nearly $4.3 billion in economic activity. If the farmers and manufacturers who ship products through those ports are factored in, port activities impact 443,000 jobs in Washington.

For them to compete in the years ahead, our state legislature authorized the ports of Seattle and Tacoma to form a port development authority. The authority will allow them to rebuild docks and invest in advanced technology.

While much of the focus is on container traffic, there is another subtle shift occurring in our region. There is an increase in shipments of bulk cargos—wheat, potash, coal and petroleum products—where the competition even pits smaller Washington ports such as Vancouver, Longview and Bellingham with nearby British Columbia.

For example, Asian countries seeking to curb greenhouse gas emissions want to buy cleaner coal from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. China and India are rapidly expanding their electric power grids, and while they are installing more wind turbines and solar panels, they still need coal to generate power.

Greater amounts of cleaner American coal will be coming through Washington. They will either be shipped from Vancouver, B.C., or loaded on ships at Cherry Point or Longview.

Port activities generate 194,000 jobs in our state.  Whether we enhance or lose those jobs depends on how we prepare for the big ships and subtle shifts to more bulk cargo.  

The simple reality is we can’t ignore world trade tends. The big ships are coming. The question is, will they dock in Seattle or Tacoma or head north to Canada or pass us by sailing through the Panama Canal to U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard?

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, columnist, and former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization.

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