Wider Panama Canal among multiple threats to Puget Sound ports
As Panama nears completion of a project that will double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2015, we need to understand how this significant change could impact the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma.
Special to The Times
THE year was 1914. After a decade of backbreaking toil, inspired engineering and a bit of luck, the Panama Canal opened for business, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on a waterway just over 50 miles wide.
In an instant, the world changed.
As Panama nears completion of a canal-widening project that will double its capacity by 2015, we in the Puget Sound need to understand how this significant change could impact our ports and the thousands of family-wage jobs they support.
Eastern Seaboard ports like Savannah, Ga., are preparing for what they believe will be an influx of Asian cargo that's now handled on the West Coast.
Before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Valparaiso, Chile, was the port of choice for ships taking the long way around South America. After the canal opened, it became a shadow of its former self.
Recently, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Trade Development Alliance went on study missions to Panama, Chile and the state of Georgia. Panama is constructing new locks that are 40 percent longer and 60 percent wider to accommodate the newest herculean ships dubbed post-Panamax. Savannah is preparing to dredge its waterway to better receive those same ships. Both locations have made massive investments in their infrastructure to make it easier to move freight where it needs to go.
Variables like the price of railroad shipping may determine how much, if any, of West Coast cargo gets diverted through the wider canal.
Nonetheless, we should not wait to act.
The Panama Canal expansion is but one of a number of new competitive challenges for our ports. The heavily subsidized Canadian Port of Prince Rupert is growing fast. The Port of Los Angeles recently invested $3 billion in its terminal and rail facilities.
How can we best prepare ourselves for change and ensure our Puget Sound ports come out ahead?
First, we need the state Legislature to make the infrastructure investments that will move our people and goods quickly and safely. A statewide multimodal-transportation package is needed to fund expansions to Highway 509 for the Port of Seattle and Highway 167 for the Port of Tacoma.
Next, we need to pressure Washington, D.C., to change the unfair harbor-maintenance tax, commonly referred to as the HMT. This tax is a double whammy for our ports. It makes it harder to compete with Prince Rupert, which doesn't have the tax. Also, the proceeds of this tax subsidize competitor ports that need dredging, such as Savannah. Puget Sound ports receive very little dredging funds because they are naturally deep.
Groups like the Washington Council on International Trade are advocating for greater tax fairness and for a national freight strategy to harmonize the movement of cargo and reduce choke points, such as those between here and Chicago.
Finally, our elected leaders need to hear community support for our ports because these issues affect all of us. Throughout Georgia, we heard repeatedly from government and business leaders that successful seaports are a priority.
Currently, the ports of Tacoma, Seattle and Everett provide nearly 200,000 direct jobs, 30,000 indirect jobs, and $20 billion in revenue for port-related business. The impact is even greater when extended statewide. Much of the goods exported from Eastern Washington — from agricultural products to manufactured goods — depend on easy access to cargo containers. The ports of the Puget Sound are really the ports of Washington state.
No matter how you look at it, our regional ports are facing some enormous changes and global competitive threats. But we can learn from the past, and from our neighbors around the world. By taking action now, we can ensure our ports remain a vital cornerstone of our regional economy and quality of life today, and long into the future.Maud Daudon, left, is president and chief executive of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Sam Kaplan is president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle.