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Bridge ‘critical’ to Northwest Seaport terminal operations

Seattle mayor declares civil emergency, alliance leader reports year-over-year cargo volume drop

Northwest Seaport Alliance volumes for the first half of the year are down 18.3% from the same period in 2019. (Photo: Port of Tacoma)

Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) officials said Friday it is imperative to terminal operations that the lower West Seattle Bridge (WSB) remain open.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on Thursday declared the cracked upper level of the WSB, closed since March 23, a civil emergency.

In an editorial published Friday in The Seattle Times, NWSA Co-chairs Peter Steinbrueck and John McCarthy said, “Impacts to this transportation hub highlight our maritime economy’s dependency on the free movement of people, goods and vehicles through the busiest maritime freight center in the state.”

They said the bridge failure “puts at grave risk the largest public investment ever made by the combined ports of Tacoma and Seattle — The Northwest Seaport Alliance’s Terminal 5 — adjacent to the WSB.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should declare an economic emergency, they said. “Support from every level of government and the marshaling of all available resources are urgently needed to bring about our state’s economic return.”

During a press conference Friday, NWSA CEO John Wolfe said, “The critical aspect of the West Seattle Bridge issue has to do with the lower bridge and maintaining that functionality because we recognize the upper bridge is either going to be repaired or replaced, hopefully over the course of a couple of years. 

“In the meantime, it is imperative that we work with the city, which we have, to ensure that freight is a priority on that lower bridge. To date, there has been no negative impact associated with the flow of cargo out of the Seattle Harbor as a result of the failure of the upper bridge,” Wolfe said. “It is going to be critical for us and our customers that the lower bridge remain operable during this time of repair or replacement to the upper bridge, which I believe will therefore ensure that we can minimize any impact to Seattle Harbor.” 

While the upper bridge closure has not negatively impacted terminal operations, “the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the global supply chain,” Wolfe said.

He reported the NWSA handled 287,036 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in June, a 16.4% from the same month last year. Full imports declined 15.1%, while full exports decreased 8%.

The NWSA handled 1,564,263 TEUs in the first half of 2020. That’s down 18.3% from the same period in 2019. 

The automotive sector has been particularly hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic. Auto volumes in the first six months were down 30.5% year-over-year. Wolfe said a bright note was that breakbulk volumes were down only 1.1%. 

“Through June, the shipping lines have canceled 55 of their scheduled visits to Seattle-Tacoma Harbor. There are seven more canceled sailings projected through September for a total of 62 canceled sailings forecast for the year,” he said. “There were a total of 58 canceled sailings in all of 2019, in part driven by the trade dispute with China.”

Wolfe said although there are fewer canceled sailings and there has been an uptick in volume thus far in July, it is difficult to predict what cargo volumes are going to be for the remainder of 2020. 

“As we look out further into next year, this pandemic is likely going to have a deeper and longer  global impact than we’ve seen even with some of the other crises this industry has experienced in the past. The extent of the disruption will vary by commodity, by trade lane and mode of transport,” he said.

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More FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Kim Link-Wills

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.