New Study Charts Course to Make Washington Ports Competitive Again

Earlier this month, the Washington Maritime Federation (WMF) released a new report highlighting  several challenges that stand to interfere with the future success of Washington’s port system and offers up specific policy recommendations on how state leaders can protect the state’s all-important maritime cluster.

The impetus behind the analysis is the decline of West Coast ports – specifically those in Washington – over the last decade. This macroeconomic dynamic, according to the report, is made worse by competitors in British Columbia and California who stand to eclipse the historical success of the Evergreen State with innovations in port improvements and coordination. The study argues, however, this downward trend can be reversed, “By adopting specific policies to: Better harness freight infrastructure investments, improve siting and project delivery processes; and engender greater coordination among port stakeholders.”

The Federation’s paper comes at a good time, as the state’s current policy landscape is hindering its incredible trade potential. Recent attacks attempting to limit rail activities in the state – which as the paper notes plays a critical role in maritime supply chains – are sending the wrong message to potential investors. Efforts such as these backed by politically charged groups whose concerns center on energy commodities, like the recent attempt by the Spokane City Council to levy a tax on oil and coal trains going through the town, will have repercussions for other industries beyond energy, including the maritime sector which depends heavily on infrastructure upgrades from rail to remain competitive. And as the most trade dependent state in the country, it is crucial that Washington enable, not disable, this important component of the state’s shipping economy.

Notably, the authors David Matsuda, former maritime administrator under the Obama administration and Steve Rothberg, long time maritime expert, compare and contrast Washington’s maritime potential to the trade successes of British Columbia and the Port of Savannah, GA because these two locations enjoy largely the same inherent advantages that make Washington so trade dependent. Thus, Washington’s shortcomings in this industry, they conclude, are largely the result of internal factors. The analysis states:

“This concentration of maritime support industries is one of the state’s key advantages to maintaining a healthy trade status. However, challenges to ports like the three issues discussed previously – looming freight infrastructure investment needs, project siting and delivery challenges and improved stakeholder coordination – are seen as a threat to competitiveness.”

It’s clear that Washington’s dependence on trade isn’t going away anytime soon. And given the potential of the state to capitalize on rising demand for American commodities like coal and agricultural products across the Pacific, the coming years can be a boon for Washington ports—if regulators can amend key policy practices now. Maritime trade is the backbone of Washington’s economy, and by mobilizing proposed policy tactics like those outlined in this new report, we can keep this industry protected and successful for decades.