In a small control room atop a six-story tower above the docks at the Port of Tacoma, Rob DeYoung, foreman in the North Intermodal Yard, manages about a dozen other members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 23, unloading two container ships that arrived at the port earlier in the day.
Below him, the workers drive around in huge orange cargo-handling trucks called straddle carriers, picking up containers from the docks and loading them onto rail cars on railroad tracks built into the dock surface. The tall “H”-shaped carriers look like giant orange insects scurrying around the docks in seemingly random fashion.
But DeYoung holds up a color-coded work sheet that shows how the various containers are coming off the ship, where they will be stacked and how they will be placed on rail cars. The rail cars will become trains headed to the Midwest, Portland and other destinations. Tacoma was one of the first ports on the West Coast to have intermodal operations, with rail lines on the dock to speed operations. The first train will leave the port barely 12 hours after the ship docked.
“That’s huge,” said John Wolfe, port chief executive officer. “It is one of the advantages that makes this port work.”
Speed, efficiency and timing are the keys to success. And, for nearly 95 years, the Port of Tacoma has been a success, though often in the shadow of the Port of Seattle, about 30 miles to the north. So much so that there are recurring calls for the two ports to merge, creating a Port of Puget Sound. Just recently, the Seattle Times editorial page called for such a merger, citing efficiencies and capital spending as key reasons.
The two ports are competitors, there is no argument about that. A year ago, Tacoma was accused of “swiping” a key Port of Seattle customer, the Grand Alliance consortium consisting of the three shipping lines of NYK Lines, OOCL and Hapag-Lloyd. The move could mean as many as 400,000 more containers would unload and load at Tacoma instead of Seattle. In 2012, the two ports were nearly equal — Seattle about 1.87 million container units; Tacoma about 1.7 million.
Still, some major differences remain. The biggest is that Seattle also manages the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Preliminary 2012 financial results show that the airport presents almost three quarters of the Port of Seattle’s operating income, while the seaport operation is about 20 percent. It also has a large commercial fishing fleet facility, unlike Tacoma.
Tacoma’s revenues are focused on seaport operations, including containers, bulk cargo and vehicles and it has two shipping companies that serve Alaska, Horizon Lines and Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE).
During a recent visit to the Tacoma port, officials there acknowledged the conversations about mergers, but also begged to differ on the wisdom of combining the two. Seattle and Tacoma are so different in potential, operations and culture, they say, that a combination does not make sense.
Standing on that control tower above dock operations, one port official pointed out that the view provided a good example of one key difference: The Port of Tacoma is in a stand-alone industrial area in the Tacoma tideflats, with room for warehouses, manufacturing and transportation. South and off in the distance is downtown Tacoma. To the north, a steep hillside features ridgetop residential areas and to the west are the waters of Puget Sound. East includes rail lines, I-5 and the commercial district that has grown up along the freeway.
“We have a good idea of where to live, work and play,” said Don Meyer, one of five port commissioners and the president this year. It was a not-so-subtle dig at the Port of Seattle’s concern about a new basketball/hockey arena in the Sodo area of Seattle, with its implication for Port of Seattle operations.
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