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Originally published Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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Seattle needs to do more to protect its port

East Coast ports are spending big to get ready for a wider Panama Canal says Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey

Times editorial columnist

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Seattle is behind the times and is toast as a container port. Tacoma is where the... MORE
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New locks on the Panama Canal will more than double the number of containers one ship can carry from the Pacific to the Atlantic. That happens in 2015, and will give East Coast ports a way to eat our lunch.

How much of the West Coast’s Asia business they will take is uncertain, but they are spending billions getting ready to do it. Most dramatic is the reworking of a signature bridge between Staten Island, New York, and New Jersey.

The Bayonne Bridge opened in 1931. It is a steel-arch bridge, the world’s fourth-longest, with a roadway suspended beneath it. Its clearance for ships is 151 feet, 16 feet lower than Seattle’s Aurora Bridge. That was high enough for its day, but it will not allow a ship piled with the equivalent of 12,000 20-foot containers to reach the port’s largest container yards.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey wants to raise the clearance to 215 feet. The obvious solution would be to build a new bridge, which is what Long Beach, Calif., is doing with its steel-arch bridge. Back East they have a nonobvious solution: Build a new, higher roadway inside the old arch.

You have to admire the audacity of it, even if it is to compete with us.

The plan is to slice the old four-lane roadway down the centerline and discard half of it, leaving a two-lane road. Then build a half-width of the high roadway, including the concrete approaches. Move the cars and trucks to the high road and destroy the rest of the low one, repeating the process to have a new high-level four-lane roadway.

The port authority wants the lower roadway removed by the fall of 2015, ready for the big ships from Panama. The Obama administration has put permitting on a fast track, and the Coast Guard has obliged by declaring that the $1.3-billion project needs no environmental-impact statement.

On July 30 environmental and labor groups sued in U.S. District Court, claiming that the construction would stir up “hazardous contaminants such as lead, arsenic, asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls.” So the East Coast’s largest port might not be ready for Panama.

Other ports plan to be.

Dredging is the most common work. It is largely paid for by a federal tax on the value of inbound cargo, and at Seattle and Tacoma the tax averages more than $100 per box. Puget Sound ports get little use from this money, because they have little need of dredging.

A bill that would allow our ports to use the money for other projects has been introduced by Washington Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. But for the moment, users of our ports are paying for our competitors’ upgrading.

The port of New York-New Jersey is one beneficiary. Another is Savannah, Ga., which is 18 miles from the Atlantic. The Corps of Engineers has approved a plan to deepen the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet, costing more than $600 million, two-thirds of it with federal money.

Charleston, S.C., is aiming to dredge its harbor to a Seattle depth of 50 feet. Charleston, of course, is the city that took the second Boeing 787 line. It’s an aggressive city, and you can’t blame it for that.

Seattle hasn’t been aggressively protective of its port, regarding such things as road projects and basketball arenas. Maybe it should be. Its rivals are not resting.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com


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