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Portland Shipping Decreases Barge Traffic

by Jeff St. John, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, November 23, 2004

For Bryson Pomeroy, the effects of two major shipping companies pulling out of the Port of Portland can be seen on his doorstep at the Port of Pasco.

In recent months, Pomeroy, terminal manager for Northwest Container Services at the Pasco barge terminal, has seen an unprecedented number of cargo containers -- not to be shipped by barge down the Columbia River, but to be loaded onto trains bound for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

"We're pushing 60 to 70 containers a week, and the bookings are going up," he said.

The reason is simple -- the Port of Portland is facing a two-thirds drop in available container cargo ships headed to Asian ports. In September, Hyundai Merchant Marine stopped serving Portland, and by mid-December, the "K" Line shipping company plans to do the same.

To adjust, shippers of hay, potatoes, onions, paper rolls and other commodities are shifting from barge to train and truck, even though shipping by rail or road costs an average of twice as much as shipping by river, Pomeroy said.

Unless the Port of Portland can secure some Asia-bound shipping to make up the shortfall, "I think it's going to get a lot busier," he said.

John Akre, Port of Portland regional marketing manager, discussed Monday at a Pasco Chamber of Commerce meeting the factors that have driven away two of the Portland's three major container shippers, and how the port intends to bring back that service.

"It's been some tough times," Akre said. This month's decision by Portland's remaining major container shipper, Hanjin Shipping, to add a Japanese port of call to its Portland route has slightly eased the pressure, but not by much, he said.

But the companies' decisions make financial sense, he said. That's because shippers are being paid three to four times as much to ship imports from China to the United States as they can get for the return trip, he said. In some cases, it's more profitable for ships to return to Asia with empty containers than to wait at American ports to fill up with exports.

For Washington, which exported nearly $2 billion in farm products in 2003, most of it to Asia, that's a problem. While Hyundai is offering customers discounts on overseas shipping to make up for the increased cost of getting products to Puget Sound ports, that doesn't help the long-term plan of keeping Columbia River barge traffic viable as a low-cost alternative to overland shipping, he said.

But there may be a silver lining to this import glut, he added. Because ships are waiting days to unload at overloaded ports like Los Angeles, shippers may begin to see Portland as an attractive port of call again, he said.

"We really are pretty optimistic right now," he said. "I think things will turn around in the first quarter of 2005."

Gary Neal, Port of Morrow manager, hopes so. In the past months, he's seen shippers that used to barge to Portland switching to truck, or "maybe even doing a little shuttle up to the Tri-Cities to go by rail."

In fact, the Port of Morrow is planning to build a $2.5 million rail spur in the next six months to bring the rail option to shippers, he said.

Still, "Our most cost-effective mode of transportation is down the river," he said. "You need that competition there."

That's why he supports plans to dredge the lower Columbia River to allow larger cargo ships to call on Portland. That project received $9 million in funding in the omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress, though it will require future funding and faces legal challenges on environmental grounds.

Mason Garrison, salesman for Easterday Farms Produce Co., would like to see barge traffic flowing again as well.

His company, the packing shed for Mid-Columbia onion grower-shipper Easterday Farms, has had to put about 400 more onion-filled trucks on the road than they would have if barge shipping hadn't been curtailed, he said.

While the busy onion shipping season ended in October, he said his company and others are thinking ahead to the next season.

"People will have to adapt," he said. "Exports are a major part of (agriculture) in Washington state."

Jeff St. John
Portland Shipping Decreases Barge Traffic
Tri-City Herald, November 23, 2004

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