Archive | River Navigation

Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland

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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:

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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.

 

The new TriMet bridge and river navigation

Discussion of the Milwaukie MAX bridge’s impact on river users.

After a recent news report addressed the issue, there has been a lot of comment in the open thread about the new TriMet bridge, which breaks ground in slightly more than two weeks, and its impacts (existing and potential) on river navigation on the Willamette. Relevant sections of the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement are here, here, and here, and an older TriMet FAQ is here.

In response to some of questions of readers, we submitted a few questions to TriMet via spokesperson Mary Fetsch. The questions, and her answers, are reproduced after the jump.

Have the necessary permits (from the USCG or any other authority) been requested? If not, when will the permit application be filed?

There are two permits outstanding for bridge construction. The US Army Corps of Engineers was submitted in July 2010. We have commented on the draft approval language and expect that this permit will be issued on Thursday June 16th. The US Coast Guard permit was applied for on July 15, 2010. We have been in contact with the US Coast Guard staff and believe that this permit will be issued on Monday June 20th or Tuesday June 21st.

Both of the permits required the issuance a 401 Water Quality Certification which requires that erosion control and water quality treatment plans be detailed. In order to issue the 401 permits, construction details needed to be developed by the Kiewit/Ty Lin our Design Build contractor. In addition, this permit required significant coordination between DEQ, TriMet, Kiewit and Zidel which is expected to start in-water soil remediation in July 2011. The 401 Water Quality Certification was issued on May 24, 2010.

If yes, have the relevant authorities provided a response? If no response has yet been received, when is one expected? Is the permitting process at this point a formality, or is there a realistic chance that the Coast Guard might deny the permit?

TriMet has closely coordinated with both regulatory agencies over the last three to four years. We don’t anticipate that there any problem with securing these final permits.

Is completion of the FEIS a prerequisite to applying for the permit?

In order for these permit to be issued, we needed to have completed the FEIS and have had an Record of Decision issued for the Project (which was issued in November 2010). In addition, it is required that we complete consultation with NOAA fisheries, State Historic Preservation office, finalize the Section 401 Certification and a host of other requirements. All of these requirements have been met by the Project.

Are there any outstanding objections among river users, or does the completion and publication of the FEIS foreclose any further objection to the present design?

There is one sailboat owner who has continued to request a bridge height of 85 feet Columbia River Datum (CRD) which is approximately 7 feet higher than the proposed 77.52 CRD. With his current fleet, all vessels will be able to proceed 100% of the time under the center main span during the highest water levels. Mr. St. Clair has stated interested in purchasing vessel with a higher mast, about 2% of the trips would be limited during the high water months. The Project has carefully balanced the needs of river users, urban design, ADA needs, and costs. In order to secure the US Coast Permit, the Project must show that we have accommodated the reasonable needs of river users now and in the future.