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Seattle and Tacoma ports: Compete or merge?

That's the question facing the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, who, unlike other coastal cities, have each held their own so far. What Tacoma thinks about the idea.
Port of Tacoma

Port of Tacoma

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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Posted Mon, Mar 25, 8:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Saying that the ports of Seattle and Tacoma cannot merge is defeatist. Puget Sound should be one port, with specialized destinations: Bellingham for Alaska, Seattle for cruise ships and airport traffic, Tacoma for freight. The Port of Seattle, justifiably annoyed that the Hansen arena threatens to throttle its growth, is more interested in fighting City Hall than finding common ground with its "rival" to the south. But the real intransigence is in Tacoma, which wants nothing to do with Seattle. Sadly, there's no political or business leadership to force the needed changes.

Posted Mon, Mar 25, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Would you agree to let the Port of Tacoma run the merged entity?


Posted Mon, Mar 25, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

And don't forget the Port of Everett is for pipe dreams...


Posted Mon, Mar 25, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

The Port of Tacoma is the major economic engine in Tacoma after the exodus of Russell and Weyerhauser. The court case ending METRO as a seperate federated government since it was not one person one vote, killed any way to structure a port commission that would not be dominated by King County. The probablity that the legislature would force a merger against Tacoma's wishes, is slightly lower that the residents of the state voting a progressive income tax or Congressman McDermott being replaced by a conservative Republican. You could copy Georgia's approach and have a Washington State Port Commission but both cities would lose control of their waterfront. We should focus on coopertive efforts such as the joint marketing of our region as a logistics center which they do with the Trade Alliance. Yes, if Seattle got out of the cargo business it might open a new possibility. Yes, we could have the Port of Tacoma Commission operate the Port of Seattle. A merger will take place when it is in the interest of Tacoma.

Posted Mon, Mar 25, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

If our journalists don't use correct English, how can we expect our children to? This from today's Crosscut:

"That's the question facing the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, WHO, unlike other coastal cities, have each held their own so far."

Since when are ports people? The personal pronoun who applies to people, not inanimate objects. It should read "that's the question facing the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, WHICH, unlike other coastal cities, have each held their own so far."

Posted Mon, Mar 25, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Ever wonder how much trash and recycleable waste the ports export? Then again, import cars are "planned obsolescence" disposable, another form of long-term waste. Larger Panamax class freighters do not save fuel in the long-run. Just more of the same waste, corruption and a dying planet only the priviledged few will survive. Seattle is planned to become a future wasteland as the bore tunnel gradually condemns or immediately topples skycrapers into rubble.


Posted Mon, Mar 25, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Week off to a tough start, Wells? For your own sake, please stay away from tall buildings and sharp objects.

Posted Mon, Mar 25, 7:14 p.m. Inappropriate

The Port of Seattle and its commission
is the one instance where I have taken a deeper gander
and followed its permutations for about a decade during my 20 year sojourn in these parts, and on this basis I conclude that a Washington
State Port Board of Overseers appointed by the Governor
and vetted by the Legislature strikes me in the best
rational interest of the state as a whole, and also of
the individual components of such an enterprise, both in the
short but particularly in the long run. It would obviate
a lot of the parochialism characteristic of the current
way of doing things.


Posted Tue, Mar 26, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Why is it necessary for the two ports to compete? Why does Port of Seattle need to grow? Obviously, from the P of S perspective, growth is an assumed asset. From my perspective, though, Seattle has many other income generators to look at. In fact, many more than Tacoma.

Tacoma has done a better job modernizing its port - rail on docks, in particular. Like the article points out, they have the industrial land without competition for other uses.

Seattle might just better off letting Tacoma have more shipping business, keep the airport, and focus on other land uses.

In fact, I'll speculate that, if the ports were to join, that would happen anyway. Once joined, the management would see the benefit of moving more ship operations to Tacoma and using Seattle's shorefront for other higher profit uses.


Posted Wed, Mar 27, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Good story, but check your map & compass -- I-5 runs east-west through Fife and the area adjacent to the Port. Downtown Tacoma is west of the Port, Commencement Bay is north, the steep slope on the Federal Way side is east, and I-5 is south.


Posted Thu, Mar 28, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, a lot of people INCLUDING the Times' editorial missed a HUGE part of a merge: the future economic relevance of MSAs.

Look at any economic development or macroeconomic research, as well as on-going efforts, the Metropolitan Statistical Area cannot be understated. The would be "Port of Puget Sound" could play a huge role in supporting the growth of Washington State as well as PAC Northwest. The inefficiencies created by Tacoma and Seattle (Grays Harbor and Everett to lesser degree) competing make it more expensive and less competitive with neighbors to the south.

Also, despite the non-believers, global warming is making the Artic much more navigable making ports in the area much more important for the continental US!


Posted Thu, Mar 28, 10:19 p.m. Inappropriate

"global warming is making the Artic [Arctic] much more navigable etc."

Yes, but you're forgetting that the era of fossil fuels, the main driver of global warming, is coming to an end. Peak oil, EROI, and all that. Economic growth based on moving tons of crap all over the place is a dead end scenario. The sooner we understand and act on this reality, the better off we'll be.


Posted Fri, Mar 29, 11:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Assume for a moment, that you are wrong about fossil fuels being "the main driver of global warming."

The so-called proof is being hyped by politicians who just want to to stay on as lifelong politicians.

Actually, politicians alone area the sole cause of global warming.

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