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FreightWaves Classics: Northwest Seaport Alliance is first of its kind

Ports of Seattle and Tacoma join forces

An aerial view of the Port of Seattle in 2020. (Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)


Washington state’s two largest ports – Seattle and Tacoma – formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), a “marine cargo operating partnership” in 2014. The Alliance is the first of its kind in North America.

As a combined entity, the NWSA is North America’s fourth-largest container gateway. Under a port development authority, the NWSA manages most marine cargo facilities in both ports, including all containerized cargo operations, breakbulk, automobiles, project/heavy-lift cargoes, and some bulk operations.

In 2017, nearly 27.6 million metric tons of cargo were handled by the NWSA at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

The State of Washington is highly dependent on trade; 40% of the jobs in the state are tied to trade in one way or another. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma are key parts of the state’s trade-related infrastructure and are integral to Washington’s economy. In addition, the NWSA “feeds” the second-largest concentration of distribution centers on the West Coast.

NWSA structure

The NWSA was formed by the ports of Seattle and Tacoma to unite the management of their marine cargo facilities and businesses in order to generate more marine cargo and jobs for the area. The Alliance provides a stronger “resume” than either port on its own.

NWSA includes King (Seattle) and Pierce (Tacoma) counties. Its port development authority is governed by the two ports as equal members. Each port is governed by five commissioners elected by the voters of their respective counties. The commissioners establish policy; the chief executive officer carries out the commissioners’ policies, as well as leading NWSA’s employees and Alliance programs.

Container cargo is stacked at the Port of Seattle. Note the Space Needle in the background. (Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Economic impact

In 2019, the value of the two-way international trade handled by NWSA was just under $75 billion. Of that amount, imports were $59.4 billion and exports were $15.4 billion.

According to 2017 figures, international and domestic trade supported more than 58,000 jobs in Washington, generated about $5.9 billion in economic activity and contributed nearly $12.4 billion in business output. Trade generated more than $4 billion in labor income and about $136 million in state and local taxes that helped support the state’s communities.

Of the jobs created by the ports and NWSA marine cargo activities, an additional 1.9 jobs were created in Washington state.

Of the 58,000+ jobs mentioned above, there were 20,100 direct jobs created because of the two ports. These jobs include employees of trucking companies and railroads moving cargo to and from terminals, as well as at warehouses and distribution centers. Also included are longshore workers, steamship agents and freight forwarders.

There were 14,700 indirect jobs created because of the ports. These jobs are in supporting industries and at suppliers, and include office supply firms, maintenance and repair firms, and parts and equipment suppliers.

Induced jobs are those created by people directly employed by marine cargo operations when they spend their wages in the community on housing, food and other consumer goods.There were 23,600 of that type of job created because of the ports.

Container ships load and unload at NWSA. (Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)
Container ships load and unload at NWSA. (Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)

International trade

Due to its location in the Pacific Northwest, U.S. to Asia/Asia to U.S. transits are a shorter distance than to other ports on the West Coast. As a gateway, NWSA is the fourth-largest containerized cargo port system.The NWSA is one of the largest marine cargo gateways in the U.S. Its two ports receive containerized cargo shipping from Asia that is then shipped to major distribution points in the Midwest, Ohio Valley and the East Coast.

NWSA’s top international trading partners include: China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and India.

A cargo ship at the Port of Tacoma. 
(Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)
A cargo ship at the Port of Tacoma.
(Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Domestic trade

Puget Sound and NWSA are major gateways to Alaska. In fact, more than 80% of the total trade volume between the continental U.S. moves through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Statistics from 2015 show that trade with Alaska was estimated at $5.4 billion. If it were ranked with the international trading partners listed above, Alaska would be fourth on the list. NWSA is also a gateway for trade to and from Hawaii. 

Both ports are also host to industrial activities that spur job growth and economic wealth creation in the central Puget Sound area and Washington state. The Ports of Tacoma and Seattle provide industrial land for manufacturing, warehousing, energy and resource activities, and more. 

Trucks lined up at the Port of Seattle. 
(Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)
Trucks lined up at the Port of Seattle.
(Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Facts and figures

In 2017, the NWSA handled more than 3.7 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containerized cargo, weighing a total of 26.1 million metric tons. The majority of this cargo was international, although 700,000 TEUs were shipped to and from Alaska, Hawaii and other domestic locations. 

Containerized cargo is the largest economic contributor within NWSA. There are six properties focused on containers in the South Harbor (Tacoma) and five in the North Harbor (Seattle). 

In addition to the 26.1 million metric tons of container shipping, NWSA moved 1.5 million metric tons of non-containerized cargo in 2017. That year, 146,900 automobiles were imported through the Port of Tacoma. Breakbulk cargoes transported through the NWSA include agricultural and mining equipment, military hardware, as well as other cargo that is transported via roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) vessels. NWSA also handled nearly 53 million board feet of logs, 715,500 metric tons of fuel, and nearly 36,000 metric tons of molasses in 2017. 

Containers are stacked quite high at NWSA. (Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)
Containers are stacked quite high at NWSA. (Photo: Northwest Seaport Alliance)

In addition, the Port of Seattle supports a growing cruise ship industry, serves as home base for approximately half of the North Pacific Fisheries Fleet and also includes marinas for pleasure craft. The Port of Seattle (North Harbor) has five container terminals, of which four are in use. There are a number of properties that provide supporting activities to the containerized cargo terminals. Also, the BNSF Seattle International Gateway Yard and the Union Pacific Argo Yard provide essential rail services for containerized cargo activities. 

Port of Tacoma activities and tenants include grain and gypsum cargo operations, port-based manufacturers, non-industrial tenants, and other non-NWSA activities. The South Harbor has six container terminals, as well as Blair Terminal where automobiles are offloaded. East Blair 1 provides services for RoRo vessels and the West Hylebos Log Yard provides services for log exports. Terminal 7, on the south end of East Sitcum Terminal, also provides automobile and RoRo services.

Note: Information for this article came primarily from the Northwest Seaport Alliance website. Please visit the site for more information.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.