Seattle port expansion brightens future

By Rosemary Weber :: March 30, 2020

In the first stage of a three-part growth strategy the Northwest Seaport Alliance will be increasing capacity, modernizing and enabling a larger megaship capacity in an effort to handle more containers and traffic to keep up with the rapidly expanding Vancouver port system. The Northwest Seaport Alliance focuses the expansion on infrastructure upgrades that will be foundational to the project. CFI is poised to handle the increasing refrigerated perishable traffic through the ports of Tacoma and Seattle through cross-training and additional knowledgeable staff.

Currently the Seattle-Tacoma port is only operating at 60% capacity, so the effectiveness of the port will need to be improved to boost efficiency. One way they’re achieving this is by combining two of the nine terminals into a mega-terminal to service the post-Panamax megaships that require a deeper dredge and wider berth greater than some US ports can support. Seattle-Tacoma will be dredged to 57 feet and outfitted with larger cranes to manage these behemoth vessels.

One concern is the throughput of these mega-terminals and the impact it will have on the trucking community. Currently, average wait times exceed 90 minutes. At present shippers complain about paying additional wait time at the terminals as a cost outside of their control. With the larger vessels calling these mega-terminals, the wait time is expected to increase substantially even with planned process improvements. 

The improvements are coming in fast as Seattle-Tacoma works to recover market share from the rapidly expanding Vancouver port just to the north. While Vancouver sees an 80-85% capacity operation, they’re around $600-$800 cheaper per container and served by the CN rail via Chicago to reduce transit time to the west coast for a bargain. In fact, Vancouver is seeing a year-on-year increase in US cargo as it grows. East coast and gulf ports are also growing their share of Asian cargo as ships work to navigate shutdowns and move through the Suez Canal instead of across the Pacific to utilize the Seattle-Tacoma port. So far, the Seattle-Tacoma market share is down 5.5% since 2015.

According to Joc.com, “The international container volume handled at the Northwest Seaport Alliance last year totaled 3,058,346 laden and empty TEU, a decline of 1.7 percent from 2018. Laden import containers totaled 1,369,251 TEU, down 5.7 percent, while laden export containers totaled 913,332 TEU, a decline of 4.2 percent from 2018, according to NWSA statistics.”

The expansion of these ports is a benefit for CFI and our perishables cargo as we’re uniquely equipped to handle the sensitive cargo that’s moving through both Seattle and Vancouver. The expansion and access to these megaships will allow us to utilize the extra capacity for refrigerated cargo carrying perishables. As more focus falls on the efficiency of ocean cargo and equipment, efficiency and capacity come under scrutiny for delays on cargo due to the Chinese New Year shutdown and, superseding Covid-19 isolation practices, we’re excited to hear there are more developments coming on the horizon. Shutdowns are temporary and once the freight starts moving, the improvements at Seattle-Tacoma will be an excellent tool for CFI to keep your cargo fresh and on schedule.

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