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As Panama Canal expands, West Coast ports scramble to keep big cargo vessels

  • Article by: DIONNE SEARCEY
  • New York Times
  • June 27, 2014 - 8:59 PM

– As construction crews 5,000 miles away are working to widen the Panama Canal to allow much larger ships to sail straight to the East Coast, this historic port city and others along the West Coast are doing everything they can to avoid becoming superfluous.

The Port of Tacoma is determined to keep up its rich import business, which can be traced to the 1880s when chests of tea from Asia arrived at its docks and headed to the East Coast by rail. Port officials know that by the time the Panama Canal opens in 2016, an even newer, larger fleet of cargo ships will be plying the oceans and will be so big they will not be able to squeeze through even the wider channel.

So Tacoma, Seattle and other ports are spending billions to be ready to receive the ships and keep themselves competitive in the overall scramble for foreign trade.

“The ships continue to get bigger, the cranes need to get bigger, and the docks need to be able to handle them,” said Trevor Thornsley, senior project manager for the Port of Tacoma, as he stood along the jagged rebar and broken concrete of a $22 million renovation to shore up the port’s Pier 3.

The work in Tacoma, a major port in this state that likes to call itself the most trade-dependent in the nation, is among dozens of projects being completed in port cities across the United States in response to major changes in the world of container imports from Asia.

“Everybody in the supply chain from the manufacturer to the end consumer — that entire supply chain is changing,” said Tay Yoshitani, chief executive of the Port of Seattle. “The port industry is trying to make adjustments.”

Traditionally, America’s West Coast ports have been the gateway to the rest of the country for the growing supply of goods from China and Hong Kong. The ports in Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Long Beach and elsewhere offer much shorter sailing times than Gulf Coast and East Coast ports. But for shippers of some goods, the web of logistics, including trucks and railroads, ends up being less expensive if they go through the Panama Canal.

While the widened Panama Canal will allow an all-water route for big ships to the East Coast, the project — originally scheduled to open this year — has been plagued with construction delays. And the authorities have yet to announce toll charges for passing ships. In the end, it might be too expensive for some ships to use.

© 2014 Star Tribune