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Wednesday, February 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Shift in Sound bragging rights over shipping business

Seattle Times business reporter

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The sluggish international economy of the past year cut deeply into Seattle's container-shipping business, allowing the Port of Tacoma to edge out its Puget Sound counterpart for the first time in years.

But shipping-industry groups say the discrepancy is small and represents the ebb and flow of trade.

At most West Coast ports, including Tacoma, the drop in 2001 container traffic ranged from 3 to 5 percent, but the Port of Seattle's containerized cargo dropped 12 percent.

While the global recession has affected all U.S. ports, Seattle officials attribute the steeper decline here to the loss of two customers: Korean shipper Cho Yang went out of business, and San Francisco-based Matson Navigation closed its coastal shuttle between Seattle and Southern California, opting for a rail route, Port of Seattle spokesman Mick Shultz said.

"If not for those losses, we would have been down 4 or 5 percent, which would have put us in the same range as the other West Coast ports," Shultz said.

Cargo shipments are tallied in 20-foot-equivalent units, or TEUs, a measure of what can be stored in one 20-foot-long cargo container. Last year, the Port of Seattle handled 1.315 million TEUs; Tacoma handled 1.320 million, giving it an edge of about 5,000.

Seattle and Tacoma ports trade heavily with Asia, but Tacoma's trade volume has weathered the economic slowdown better because of its strong Alaska trade, said Rich Berkowitz, Pacific Coast operations director for the Transportation Institute. The organization represents U.S.-flagged vessels.

Seattle has some Alaska trade, but much of that cargo moves on barges based at sites other than the Port of Seattle.

By comparison, the Port of Tacoma has six regularly scheduled cargo ships sailing between Tacoma and Anchorage every week, Berkowitz said.

But comparing Seattle vs. Tacoma misses the bigger picture, according to Harry Hutchins, executive director of the Puget Sound Steamship Operators Association.

When international shippers decide where to go, they look at a region rather than an individual port. Tacoma and Seattle together compete with ports in Southern California and British Columbia, Hutchins said.

The ports of Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach together handled more than 5.5 million TEUs, capturing about two-thirds of the West Coast containerized trade last year.

Vancouver, B.C., also has taken some business away from Puget Sound ports, Hutchins said.

Seattle officials say improvements to Terminal 18 at Harbor Island may attract new customers. A two-year project scheduled to be completed in coming weeks will nearly double the terminal's size to 196 acres, making it the Port's largest terminal for containerized cargo.

"We're poised for growth when the market rebounds," Shultz said.

Frank Vinluan can be reached at 206-464-2291 or fvinluan@seattletimes.com.

Information in this article, originally published February 6, was corrected February 7. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said how freight is moved between Seattle and Alaska. Most cargo on that route moves on barges based at sites other than the Port of Seattle.

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