Washington port facilty remains gateway to Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, July 07, 2010

No matter who you ask, the answer is the same: Alaska's transportation link with Washington is just as critical today as it was decades ago, if not more so.

The transportation of goods into Alaska has long been reliant on the state's connection with Washington. Indeed, the majority of the goods that come into the Port of Anchorage by ship originate at the Port of Tacoma after being transported across the continental United States by truck and rail.

"We manufacture very little, if anything, around here," said George Lowery, Alaska director for Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc., one of two ocean liners that haul goods and commodities from Tacoma to Anchorage.

Officials with Horizon Lines, the other major ocean liner that calls both in Anchorage and Tacoma, declined to comment on this story.

Lowery said Totem's volume of groceries carried between the ports is consistent, and has remained mostly so throughout the national recession. However, goods that are not considered necessities, such as automobiles and building materials, dropped along with the national economy.

However, both have seen a recent upswing, he said. Alaskans are likely buying more automobiles as the state bounces back from its own relatively limited economic downtick, Lowery said, and building materials should be back in demand with the passage of a generous state capital budget.

Shari Gross, who represents the Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce on Alaska's state chamber board of directors, said that regardless of whether cargo volumes between the two ports have dropped, Alaska is still just as dependent on Washington.

"Until Alaska can manufacture its own toothpaste, Tacoma is going to remain the gateway," she said.

Gross, however, characterizes the relationship as a connection rather than dependence.

She said that many business people within the seafood and transportation industries actively keep up with the goings on of the Alaska economy because their industries are so interconnected with Alaska.

Officials at the Port of Tacoma care about Alaska's economy because, according to Port of Anchorage Director Bill Sheffield, between 28 percent and 33 percent of the Tacoma port's business is with Alaska.

According to the results of a study conducted by the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research, Alaska is the third biggest trading partner with the Tacoma port, accounting for $3.5 billion in economic activity.

China and Japan rank above Alaska, with $11.86 billion and $6.64 billion, respectively, of business.

Sheffield said he doesn't see the transportation link between the two states becoming less important any time soon.

"We have always been dependent on Seattle and Tacoma," he said.

The Port of Tacoma, he said, is largely the critical port for this link. Some 80 percent of the state is served by container traffic between these two ports, with relatively few of the state's goods and resources coming from other places.

Leaded aviation gas is one exception: it tends to come from California, he said.

Gross said the relationship may become even more critical if the new in-state gas pipeline is constructed. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline, completed in 1977, led to an economic boom that brought a massive influx of people and business to Alaska.

Gross said a new gasline would mean "lots more cargo," as building materials and other supplies would be needed, and would likely be transported via the same route as goods are today.

Aves Thompson, the executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association, said he too believes Alaska is just as dependent on Washington as it has ever been.

"It's about the same. Washington's always been the gateway to Alaska," he said.

And trucking is not unlike other modes of transportation in Alaska that is joined at the hip with its counterparts in Washington.

In 2005, Carlile Transportation Systems, among Alaska's largest trucking companies, established a facility in Tacoma. At 64,000 square feet, this facility serves as the company's consolidation control point for "all material requiring bookings, transloading, or consolidation for water forwarding to Alaska," according to the company's website. The facility contains a truck scale and a rail spur.

Additionally, Midnight Sun Transportation, another trucking company, has operations in both Washington and Alaska, Thompson said.

Thompson said that in December 2009, freight volumes were down between 10 percent and 12 percent in the trucking industry. However, volumes have since began to recover, he said, indicating an improving economy.

"Freight's one of the leading indicators for recoveries," he said. "So, as an industry, we're cautiously optimistic."

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