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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

December 13, 2010 at 9:40 AM

It’s not pork if it means better ways to hurt Puget Sound ports

There is no red-state America or blue-state America when it comes to the competition barreling toward the ports of Puget Sound. There’s only green-state America. As the New York Times reported Sunday, Savannah, Ga., is engaged in a $625 million project to deepen its port. Most of the money to pay for the expansion is coming from the feds, at the request of “anti-pork” members of the Georgia congressional delegation. South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley promised, “You now have a governor who does not like to lose. Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.” Count on South Carolina to aggressively go after federal funds to expand the port of Charleston.

The East Coast ports, particularly in the South, are anticipating the completion of a wider Panama Canal, a $5.25 billion expansion expected to be open in 2014. It will allow super-sized container ships to sail from Asia directly to population centers on the American East Coast.

The big losers will be West Coast ports, where goods have been unloaded for shipment by rail and trucks to the east and the midwest. Yet another competitor for American ports is Prince Rupert in Canada, with its direct rail link to the midwest.

A spokeswoman for the Port of Los Angeles dismissed the competition, telling the newspapers, “The Port of Los Angeles is not expecting increased cargo diversion as a result of the Panama Canal expansion.” That’s brave talk for a one-eyed fat man, as a character says in the original True Grit. The mega-ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have the most to lose, not least because they must maintain significant traffic growth just to stay even.

Port officials here are not nearly so sanguine. They take the new competition very seriously, hence Seattle’s push to market itself as the greenest port. Neither Seattle nor Tacoma have the growth demands of a mega-port. But the emergence of new rivals means the old ethic of deliberate-deliberate-deliberate is dangerous. The Puget Sound region needs faster and more seamless rail links to the Midwest and East, as well as to the interior of Washington. Coasting along won’t cut it.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

China inflation

What could possibly go wrong?

Big country, big risks

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