Port shipping: First the good news ...

Shipping volumes are up for Seattle and a number of other ports. But West Coast cities now seeing gains could face big challenges as the Panama Canal expands and allows shippers to bypass them.

International shipping is reviving as the economy improves in many parts of the world, even to the point of creating capacity issues for goods going from China to the U.S. And the Port of Seattle is experiencing much higher volumes than during the height of the recession: 45 percent above the previous year through June.

But the port could face future declines in business, as competition increases. The port's leadership has taken to pointing to the challenges from both Canadian investments in better cargo handling and transportation facilities and the 2014 opening of a new shipping lane by the Panama Canal. Typical of that message, Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant talked earlier this month in Port Angeles about the potential losses for the region.

Amid the good news for current ports, the prospects for gains by Gulf and East Coast ports after the Panama Canal improvement is beginning to get wider media coverage. National Public Radio carried a report Wednesday on the promising future, headlined "Panama Canal's new lane is a game changer."

The fear of increased competition is one reason that the Port of Seattle has been eager to work with other jurisdictions on rail and highway improvements, including the port's promise of help on expenses associated with the planned waterfront tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But other areas face their own challenges if they are going to get much increase in shipping, as the NPR report noted.

One problem is that some of the Gulf and East Coast shipping centers need to have their harbors deepened to take full advantage of the larger ships. As Bryant pointed out, however, there is a bit of a catch there for Seattle, Port Angeles and some other West Coast ports. Everyone landing at a U.S. port must pay a fee to help shallow harbors make improvements, but many places, including Seattle and Port Angeles, don't qualify for using the fees. "Houston, Savannah and Charleston do qualify, though," he told his Port Angeles audience.

The Panama Canal itself is quite eager to help Seattle's competitors, and itself, in pursuing more of the shipping business. The canal has already signed memorandums of understanding with ports from Houston and Mississippi around to the Eastern Seaboard up to at least Massachusetts.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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