Archive | Freight

Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland


The Oregonian continues to advocate paving over scarce urban greenspace for new port facilities rather than re-using Portland’s brownfields, such as the former site of the Atofina Chemicals plant near Linnton. Photo: Alexander B. Craghead, 2012.

The Oregonian continues to demonstrate its tone-deafness regarding the Port of Portland. Last week, the newspaper revealed its “editorial agenda” for 2014, one plank of which is titled “Portland’s industrial lands scavenger hunt.” The title is misleading. The editorial’s real thrust is to complain bitterly about the city’s policy towards economic development, relying on the cancellation of the Port of Portland’s West Hayden Island development as exhibit number one.

Maritime transportation facilities are of vital importance to the city and the region. Yet the paper seems to believe that the only way that the region’s maritime trade can grow is to pave over natural resources:

City planners hope to lean heavily on brownfield restoration to replenish the supply of industrial lands. In concept, it’s a good plan. Take land that currently is an environmental nuisance and has little value. With a mix of public and private money, clean it up and put businesses on the sites. But making those projects pencil out, particularly for industrial uses, might well prove as difficult as finding a way to balance the Port’s needs and environmentalists’ concerns on West Hayden Island.

Allow me to translate: The Oregonian thinks cleaning up brownfields is too costly and difficult, and therefore would have us pave over greenspaces like West Hayden Island instead.

Leaving aside whether or not the Port of Portland’s development of West Hayden Island would really have been the job creator that the paper claims, this is simply bad land use and transportation policy.

Worse, a bigger question remains: is the Port of Portland’s wish for more marine terminals being driven by regional needs, or by unnecessary and destructive inter-port competition? Does the Lower Columbia really need to be served by six different commercial portsEven Seattle and Tacoma, once hated rivals, are beginning to cooperate. Even if the region does need more marine terminals, the only reason to build on West Hayden Island, versus some other location, was because West Hayden Island belonged to the Port of Portland, versus some other port authority. Put another way, if Hayden Island were on the Washington side of the state line, nobody would have been talking about turning it into a port facility, given the ease on constructing westward along the river’s north shore, as the Port of Vancouver, USA is in fact doing. West Hayden Island, simply put, was needless inter-governmental competition at its worst.

Marine transportation has as vast and direct land use impact, perhaps as much as automobile transportation, perhaps more so. It’s time that the port authorities along the Lower Columbia began to cooperate, act together more efficiently, and make fewer wasteful land use decisions. Maybe the cancellation of the West Hayden Island port plans will open the door to a broader public debate on the matter. If so, then its cancellation will have proven to be not only a good thing for the environment, but also a good thing for the future of rational maritime transportation in the region. But somehow, I doubt it. It seems far more likely that we will continue to get “chicken little” op-eds out of the Big O, rather than meaningful debates.

The inevitable end of container traffic at the Port of Portland

In recent months, the Port of Portland’s probable loss of the Hanjin shipping company has been in the news. Local media reported on the event, largely painting it as a minor tragedy. Chris, here at Portland Transport, provided his own take, noting how that those businesses using Terminal 6 would now have to truck their goods to Puget Sound, an increase not only in cost but also in carbon emissions.

I have a slightly different take from Chris: container traffic at the Port of Portland is doomed. It is only a question of when.

Hanjin’s departure has sparked a lot of silly analysis. An Oregonian editorial, for example, blamed most of the matter on increased costs from labor disputes, an issue that the Port of Portland claims was a factor in Hanjin’s decision. (The official press release does not mention this factor, nor does the Hanjin letter to shipping customers [PDF] obtained by the Oregonian.)

Meanwhile, the Portland Business Journal sloppily threw a bunch of statistics at the matter, attempting to make the case that Hanjin in specific, and container import-export at the Port of Portland in general, were crucial to the metropolitan economy.

Hanjin’s decision comes as the region executes on a plan to increase exports, which are a significant contributor to the Portland metro economy. A recent Brookings Institution study found that exports accounted for $33.9 billion in regional economic activity in 2012, driving in large part by technology exports. (See the region’s top-five exported goods.)

In addition, a recent Portland Business Alliance study found that Oregon companies made and exported $16.5 billion worth of goods to countries worldwide in 2012, creating 490,000 jobs.

Not all of those good were moved by Hanjin, but as the largest carrier calling on Portland, Hanjin certainly accounted for a good deal of that traffic.

Reading this take from the Portland Business Journal, one might conclude that Hanjin was doing massive amounts of business out of T6, and the the Port of Portland was some kind of big time player in container shipping. Yet this is not at all the case. Terminal volume at T6 for the year 2012 (the most recent year for which data was available) stands at 183,203 TEU. (TEU means “twenty-foot equivalent units,” representing a standard twenty-foot shipping container.) Moreover, T6 has never handled more than 340,000 TEU in a year, and that was ten years ago, in 2003. While this may seem like a lot, let’s put it into perspective, by comparing the Port of Portland’s container traffic to the other major west coast terminals at Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle, Oakland, and Tacoma. The following graphic, based on 2010 volumes, gives you some sense of proportion:


Portland is the smallest “major” U.S. container port. Tacoma, the next larger, is more than eight times bigger. As a player in the global container shipping market, Portland doesn’t even exist.

To understand why we need to understand the special nature of containerized cargo. This is the type of stuff that is not so time sensitive or small that it can economically fly, but is of sufficient value and lightness that it can be shipped relatively cheaply and still be competitively sold at its destination. Inbound containerized cargo to the United States is often consumer goods manufactured in Asia. Outbound cargo is typically specialty products or niche materials. In Oregon, examples might be specialty cedar boards for Japanese sauna construction, pallets of Christmas trees headed to Hawaii, or a couple truckloads of Hazelnuts going to China.

Containerized cargo, because it is relatively light and of higher value, is very mobile. Outbound loads will go to the port where shipping companies can offer the fastest transit time to the final destination for the least cost, and that recipe usually means that containers end up shipping in and out where other containers already are, since competition breeds lower costs. It also means that containers tend to go to those ports that are closest to their final destinations, thus reducing transit times. This is why goods heading to Europe typically are trucked or carried by railways to Eastern ports, while goods heading to Asia typically go west to Pacific ports.

So far, you’d think, so good for Portland. Since we are a Pacific port, we’re closer to Asia. But so are all the other ports of the U.S. West Coast. This is were port competitiveness begins. Note that when Hanjin announced its pull out from Portland, the Puget Sound Business Journal treated it as good news: container traffic lost in Portland would likely relocate to Puget Sound ports. In the American shipping world, what is bad for one port is good for all the others.

To compete, each port has its unique characteristics. Portland, along with there ports of the lower Columbia River, has a geographic advantage by being at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge, the only water-level route through the Cascade-Sierra divide. This makes these ports naturally strong for handling bulk materials, where mobility is heavily restricted by weight and a high shipping cost. According to statistics published by the Port of Portland, Portland Harbor — which includes both the Port of Portland and several private terminals along the Willamette River — is “the largest wheat export port in the United States, the largest mineral export port on the U.S. West Coast, and the 4th largest export tonnage port on the U.S. West Coast.”

Container traffic is, however, highly mobile. Portland is located 100 miles away from the ocean, up a river with a relatively shallow depth (43 feet) and that must be dredged, and on the other side of one of the most treacherous river bars in the world. Put another way, to serve Portland, you have to have a reason to spend the extra time, money, and risk to reach it. All that grain can’t easily or cheaply move elsewhere, but containers — especially if they trucking in anyway and are not being filled directly from Portland producers — can fairly easily and cheaply end up at other ports.

And over the last half-century, that’s exactly what has happened. Railroads, truckers, and shipping lines have all contributed to the development of major container traffic at every major port of the U.S. Pacific Coast–except for Portland. No labor agreement or policy change is going to alter this historic trend.


What’s the Impact of Hanjin’s Exit?

Last week it was reported that container shipper Hanjin will stop calling on the Port of Portland in January, this morning the Business Journal starts to figure out the impacts.

I expect that some will begin speculating about what this might mean for development of terminals on West Hayden Island. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I suspect that the loss of revenue (Hanjin represents 80% of the container traffic for the Port) on the Port’s income statement could cause some challenges in financing future projects. On the other hand, the WHI terminals are intended for non-container traffic (grain, bulk minerals and possibly auto import/export), so this may not really provide any information about market viability.

In the short term it is certainly bad for the region’s carbon footprint. Trucking those containers to/from Puget Sound will use a lot more energy and output a lot more emissions than floating them up the Columbia does. And it will cost more, which will almost certainly get passed on to consumers here in some form.

I’m hoping Hanjin gets an earful from their customers and changes their mind.

Guest Post: Proposal for Upgraded Columbia Corridor/Bypass 30 Reroute

Another guest post by frequent reader and commenter dan w. We wish to remind readers that we are happy to run guest posts–simply email submissions to one of the moderators–ES.

Serving the Rivergate Industrial District, Portland Airport and a plethora of other
industrial/employment centers, the Columbia Corridor–aka Bypass 30 and its parallel routes–is a vital freight and commuter corridor but isn’t always on the collective radar. Indeed, this study dating back to pre-Y2K days is one of the few documents I could find that focus on this corridor. The document defines Columbia Corridor as extending between Rivergate and Troutdale, but for my proposal outlined below I’m focusing on the section between Rivergate and I-205.

After the jump….
(Click on link for full-sized image)

Mostly utilizing existing ROW, rerouting Bypass 30 onto this newly upgraded corridor would help relieve pressure on congested I-84 (freight rail improvements as outlined by local and state proposals are also a key component but I opted not to include them on my map). Also, while current bus service only runs along a few segments of the corridor, BRT or something similar along its entire length has the potential to serve countless employers. It can connect with the Red and Yellow MAX lines and various bus routes including 6, 70, 72 and 75.

Phase 1 should be relatively inexpensive and low-impact to implement (assuming a full freeway isn’t the chosen option). One option is an expressway, which is a combination of at-grade and grade-separated interchanges (think Hwy 224 between McLoughlin and I-205). In fact, several grade-separated facilities already exist on this corridor, and frontage roads and driveway consolidations along various stretches should also help with traffic flow. The key is to not have implementation of the corridor be so disruptive that it ends up eliminating huge chunks of the industrial facilities to which we’re trying to improve access.

Option A – NE Lombard to MLK (includes new ROW between Lombard Pl and MLK/ Columbia intersection)
Option B – Columbia Blvd to MLK

Option A – MLK to Marine Dr to N. Lombard
Option B – Columbia Blvd (includes new ROW to the north between Portland Rd and Upland Dr to skirt residential area) to N. Burgard

Although it tacks a couple of extra miles onto the corridor, I prefer Option A for the west segment because: 1) It generally avoids residential areas, 2) MLK between I-5 and Columbia is already pretty much limited access, 3) unlike Option B, a full interchange already exists at I-5, and 4) it offers direct access to my proposed Columbia River bridge.

Both east segment options have their advantages, but I’d prefer to have BRT run on Columbia rather than Lombard because it would directly serve more employers.

Phase 2…. Here comes the fun expensive part. Inspired by others’ posts on this blog, this part of the proposal calls for the corridor to connect to new bridges over the Willamette and Columbia, the latter being a third-bridge CRC alternative.

Electric Motorways?

University of Washington researcher Jerry Schneider points to a Swedish company (Elways) researching the concept of “electric motorways”–highways equipped with electric lines which can be used to energize and power vehicles traveling thereon. Elways proposed architecture consists of buried third-rail power, accessed by lowering a pickup shoe into a channel embedded in the road surface; to increase safety, the system also energizes those portions of the rail that are presently serving vehicles. It is anticipated that vehicles using such roads will be capable of disconnected travel, either from a battery or an internal combustion engine (certain maneuvers such as lane-changes will require disconnecting from one lane’s power rail and connecting in another lane).

Using current technology, the speed limit for overhead powered road vehicles appears to be about 70kM/h (40MPH). Unlike electric trains that have fixed guideways and only one overhead connection needed (the rails provide the ground return path); trolleypole systems need to accomodate horizontal maneuvering of the vehicle (both within-lane and lane changes) and the bouncier suspensions needed to accomodate potholes and other defects/obstructions in the road surface; and the non-conductivity of rubber tires means a second wire is needed for the return path. Ground-level third rail, commonly found in grade-separated metro systems, is generally considered unacceptable for public roads due to the obvious safety hazard the third rail poses to pedestrians.

Right now, the major application of overhead-powered electric road vehicles is the trolleybus. The speed limit isn’t a problem for many urban transit applications, the greater maneuverability of a trolleybus over a mixed-traffic streetcar is generally considered an asset, the lack of diesel pollution is also considered a major advantage, and electric trolleybusses have noted advantages on routes with steep grades (it’s no accident that two of the North American cities which extensively use them are Seattle and San Francisco). However, trolleybusses are noted to have reliability issues, many object to the wiring, and as such, most transit companies in the US have abandoned them. (See this article for a discussion of the merits of the electric trolleybus in Portland).

Use of overhead caternary to power trucking (particularly long-haul trucking) though, seems to not be an attractive solution.

That said–rather than try to retrofit existing mixed-traffic highways with electrical sources, perhaps an alternate solution is in order? Places such as Adelaide, Australia and Cambridgeshire, UK have built guided busways–essentially dedicated BRT lines where the bus is physically guided down the busway, permitting it to achieve faster speeds and a somewhat more comfortable ride in a narrower footprint. This gives some of the technical advantages of rail, coupled with the greater flexibility of a bus–the busses can leave the guideway and maneuver in mixed traffic as appropriate. (Note that neither of these systems are powered–diesel vehicles, operating under their own power at all times, are used).

What if such a solution were build to handle trucks? A guided truckway, which kept vehicles traveling in fixed channel, could make the electrical interface needed to use well-known solutions like overhead caternary much more tractable and capable of higher speed, particularly if the guideway could also be used for return current. The truckway road surface could be optimized for heavy vehicles, reducing the amount of damage incurred by road surfaces elsewhere (heavy vehicles such as trucks and busses cause the vast majority of road wear). A guided truckway could permit either electric-powered or diesel-powered operation (i.e. diesel-powered trucks could use the mechanical coupling only), and driverless operation while in the guideway would be a more tractable problem with a fixed guideway. Unlike rail or water freight, which requires cargo to be maneuvered from truck to train/ship (a process made easier by containerization, though still expensive), guided trucks could use the local streets to pick up a load and drive to the truckway, use the truckway for the long-haul part of a journey, and then return to the local streets for the last mile on the other end–in this way, they would fill a niche between unguided trucking and rail.

Long haul bus service could also use guided truckways, especially in shorter corridors where HSR is not cost-effective.

This falls short of Elways’ vision of a motorway where all the vehicles, including personal automobiles, are running on roadway-supplied electric power. But many of the problems involved are more tractable when limited to larger vehicles operated by professional drivers (or automated control systems).