Port of Tacoma poised to continue expansion

“Last year was a record-setting year at the Port of Tacoma,” reported Andrea Riniker during Friday’s World Trade Center Tacoma luncheon held at the Tacoma Club in the Wells Fargo Building.

Riniker, executive director of the Port of Tacoma, was on hand to discuss the port’s success and plans for continued growth.

The Port of Tacoma – often referred to as the “economic engine” of the region – is the fifth largest port in the United States and the leading seaport of the Pacific Northwest. “We think Oakland is actually within shooting distance,” Riniker said, referring to the No. 4 port on the list.

The Port of Tacoma supplies more than 28,000 jobs in Pierce County, and nearly 102,000 jobs in Washington state. Port-related jobs bring in $471 million in annual wages in Pierce County, and port activities generate more than $77 million annually in state and local taxes in the state.

Indeed, 2003 was a banner year for the Port of Tacoma, which set records for container cargo volume, intermodal activity and overall tonnage.

“All major carriers grew,” Riniker said. International container shipping lines “K” Line, Hyundai, Maersk Sealand, Evergreen and Yang Ming all increased cargo volume through Tacoma in 2003.

The port handled a record 1.74 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) in 2003, Riniker said.

Overall international business increased 27 percent last year, she said, with imports up 20 percent and exports up 33 percent.

“We expect continued growth,” she said, noting the U.S. is still the major exporting nation in the world, and a weaker dollar has helped to improve exports.

The number of domestic containers coming through the port increased by about 1 percent, Riniker said. Domestic containers make up between one-fourth and one-third of port business, she pointed out.

Intermodal lifts were up to 468,600 in 2003, Riniker said, an increase of 29 percent from the previous year.

Total tonnage in 2003 was 17.4 short tons, she stated.

“We do remain a highly diversified port,” Riniker said.

Last year was also a record year for capital investment – no surprise, considering the Port of Tacoma’s growth. More than $106 million was invested in construction and environmental projects, as part of a five-year, $321 million Capital Improvements Plan in place to fund such projects.

Some of the new facilities – both under construction and completed – include the following:

– At the heart of the port’s development plans is the new Evergreen Terminal at the head of the Blair Waterway. Ground was broken in August. When completed in January 2005, the $210 million, 171-acre terminal will be able to accommodate an annual capacity of more than 840,000 TEUs. Evergreen has an option to expand the terminal to 237 acres in the future, bringing total annual capacity to approximately 1.2 million TEUs.

– In October, the port and Auto Warehousing Company opened the $40 million, 146-acre Marshall Avenue Auto Facility. That facility processed more than 158,000 vehicles in 2003.

– In July, the port completed a $12 million upgrade of the TOTE (Totem Ocean Trailer Express) Terminal. The upgrade increased the terminal’s ability to accommodate TOTE’s two new 840-foot vessels, the Midnight Sun and North Star.

Meanwhile, easy port access and major transportation corridors are attracting import distribution centers – such as Home Depot and Target – to the Lacey area.“I really think we should embrace those communities in the south,” Riniker said.

Transportation, security, military traffic and gentrification are issues that must be dealt with as the port business continues to pick up, Riniker said.

The port is active in being a partner in completing the extension of State Route 167, as well as supporting the Cross Base Highway that will link the Frederickson Industrial area with Interstate 5 and the East “D” Street Overpass project, which will triple mainline rail capacity through this part of Tacoma.

Terrorism is a very real concern, as the port continues to seek funding for port security measures, such as the recently-implemented Operation Safe Commerce.

With U.S. forces engaged around the world against Islamic terrorists and military bases nationwide being considered for closure, the Port of Tacoma’s value to the armed forces has been enhanced. The port moved more military cargo in 2003 that at any time since the Vietnam war, Riniker said. Because of shrinking space, a terminal for military cargo is being considered, she said.

The port is struggling to maintain a balance between being a successful industrial enterprise and the development of the Thea Foss Waterway. “This is a very complicated thing to do,” Riniker noted.

Riniker, who was named the port’s executive director in 1997, plans to take off July, August and September at half her $177,000 annual salary. The port commission has agreed to the plan under which she will be available as needed.

“I hope I’ll be a model for others in the public sector,” she said. “There are a number of people in the public sector who ought to take a break.”