While other West Coast ports rebound, Tacoma struggles

From time to time during the last decade, Port of Tacoma executives and commissioners briefly wondered whether the rocket ride the port was taking would ever run out of thrust.

Now they know.

It has.

And the port's container traffic trends continue downward even as other West Coast ports have seen their numbers begin to climb out of a recession-dug hole.

So far this year, containers are 58 percent of all the cargo handled by the port. In 2006, containers hit their peak at almost 65 percent.

Consider the latest container cargo figures released 10 days ago by the port. The port's containers are down 9.1 percent for the year through September. And September was 4.6 percent worse than the same time in 2009 – itself a disappointment.

At that rate, the port expects to handle some 1.5 million container units this year. That's about 567,000 fewer than in 2006.

Other major West Coast ports expect 2010 to be better than last. Through August, those ports have posted increases ranging from Long Beach's 10.7 percent to Seattle's 46.5 percent.

Is the Port of Tacoma's vaunted container growth engine running on empty?

That's a question port executives and port commissioners are pondering now as they struggle to find a new formula to create jobs and spawn new business.

Just a few weeks ago, port executives made a quick tour of Asia to ask shippers and shipping lines about what happens next in Tacoma's container business.

John Wolfe, the port's new chief executive officer, said nothing he heard in Asia makes him think a quick rebound is coming. Shipping lines and their customers are cautious about the U.S. economy and the demand it will create for imported goods.

The port's own forecasts reflect that cautious outlook. It will take at least 10 years for the port to reach its previous container traffic peak, said port spokeswoman Tara Mattina.

Why has the container traffic thrill ride that officially began on May 13, 1985, when the containership Sea-Land Endurance made its first call in Tacoma, come to such an abrupt halt?

Port officials, commissioners and shipping experts say a number of factors are involved.

The loss of a major shipping line.

Maersk Line, a Danish shipping giant, acquired pioneering Tacoma container shipping line Sea-Land Service in 1999. Last summer, Maersk moved its operation to Seattle. That was a reversal of the Sea-Land move from Seattle to Tacoma in the mid-1980s that put Tacoma on the map as a container port.

Tacoma spent years courting Sea-Land with promises of a larger terminal, a revolutionary on-dock railyard and a productive labor force.

Brendan Dugan, the port's senior director of container terminal business, said the move to Seattle caught the port by surprise.

"It was a decision made on a global level," Dugan said.

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