"There's pent up demand for that transportation funding, and that will help set some agendas statewide as well as in other states on how we start building capacity in the future," says Jeannie Beckett, senior director of inland transportation for the Port of Tacoma. Beckett holds out very little hope that the infrastructure spending bill will pass and be signed before the November presidential election.
The freight won't wait, and Tacoma, like many other ports, is moving forward quickly to meet current and projected demand.
"We are at capacity now — the port handled a record 1.74 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in 2003," says Mike Wasem, Tacoma's manager of communications. Port officials expect to blow past 2 million TEUs in 2005 and to be at over 3 million TEUs by 2009. That's a compound annual growth rate of 12.6%.
One current initiative at the port is the expansion of the Pierce County Terminal. Five container cranes were delivered to the terminal and are scheduled to be installed and commissioned. Evergreen Marine Corp., which took possession of the terminal on October 1, will begin moving operations to the terminal, handling training and practice runs through November and December. The full operation is expected to go live on January 15, 2005.
"With the new terminal opening, our capacity greatly increases," says Beckett. But, she is quick to point out that one of the reasons Evergreen Marine decided to build a new terminal is that it had reached capacity at the old Terminal 4. Terminal 4, which Evergreen will vacate, has been leased to Husky and will be operated for K-Line, says Beckett.
When she points to current traffic figures, there has been a flattening of volumes across the monthly time line. Part of this may be attributable to steady flows from increased trade coming out of China, but another factor is the terminals at Tacoma operating at or near capacity. "They're pushing as much through Tacoma as they can. They are pretty much at capacity at their terminal. My understanding from some shippers is that they're flattening out their peaks because of the limitation both in the Pacific Southwest and with truckers, rail, distribution center labor, the whole thing. They're trying to ship a little earlier so that peaking won't be quite as extreme." Beckett says she prefers to stay out ahead of the freight when it comes to planning infrastructure. That will be difficult given the lack of progress on TEA-21 reauthorization and its impact on various projects among the ports and their communities, carriers and inland partners.
Tacoma, for example, moves 70% of import container traffic through the port to rail and on to the U.S. Midwest. Only 30% remains in the region. Beckett is very interested in what happens to infrastructure projects in those destination markets.
As for the terminal expansions already underway, that capacity will quickly be consumed, contributing to the continued level volumes Tacoma is already seeing. The port has negotiated a joint venture with the Puyallup Indian Tribe to build another 300-acre greenfield site, but that won't be available until 2010. Until then, it's like the old line, a rising tide raises all ships. U.S. West Coast ports are looking at continued growth in import volumes.
Evergreen Marine Corp.
Port of Tacoma