Seattle, Tacoma port volumes surge as terminals recover from backlog

In a joint statement, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma stated that the gateway handled 361,951 twenty-foot equivalent container units in March. That was the busiest month in Seattle-Tacoma since September 2014 during last year’s peak-shipping season.

All West Coast ports contended with severe congestion beginning in early November when, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union engaged in work slowdowns in order to gain leverage during the coastwide contract bargaining.

The PMA and the ports documented the results of the labor actions. In Seattle, Tacoma and Oakland, crane productivity plunged overnight from about 26-28 container moves per crane, per hour, to below 20. In Los Angeles-Long Beach, the ILWU hall slashed the daily dispatch of yard crane operators from 110 to 35, the PMA stated. The job actions ended abruptly after a tentative contract was signed on Feb. 20.

Los Angeles and Long Beach have contended with terminal congestion for much of 2014 due to the arrival of big ships generating huge cargo surges. Operational problems escalated as a result of chassis shortages and a shortage of intermodal rail equipment. The busiest U.S. port complex was brought to its knees during the four months of ILWU job actions.

Seattle and Tacoma, meanwhile had been relatively congestion-free when the ILWU job actions began. In fact, the Puget Sound ports have been been working together to attract more cargo. The ports say their container terminals are experiencing less than 50 percent utilization due to a continuous erosion of cargo to Prince Rupert and Vancouver, Canada, and the California ports. However, Seattle and Tacoma experienced terminal congestion and vessel backups during the ILWU job actions just as the California ports.

Now it looks as if the Puget Sound ports are recovering faster than the California ports, which reported a decline in container volume year-to-date. The Seattle-Tacoma port complex in the first quarter experienced an increase of three percent in container volume compared to the first quarter of 2014. Los Angeles was down 5 percent, Long Beach 3.3 percent and Oakland 18.1 percent, compared to the first three months of 2014, according to container volumes published by the ports.