Global trade requires timely investments in maritime, rail

cargo container
To secure Washington's position as a leader in global trade, the state must ensure its policies support timely investments in infrastructure. Photo: Association of American Railroads

Washington state prides itself on being a leader in global trade.

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in the maritime industry, I can attest to this firsthand. For over a century now, Puget Sound ports have utilized our natural deep, protected waterways as hubs of global commerce, where goods and commodities flow around the clock to and from ports throughout the Pacific Rim. This activity is at the very core of how the Pacific Northwest developed.

Unfortunately, this critical economic activity is being threatened.

Today’s regulatory environment is making it increasingly more difficult to get anything permitted — whether in the city of Seattle or anywhere in the state. Even existing industrial areas, like Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle, aren’t a lock to be re-permitted for the same uses.

I worry because this regulatory uncertainty is having a chilling effect on infrastructure investments. Seattle and Washington state are graced with amazing geographic access to other major global markets, particularly Asia. But our neighbors in Canada also share that same advantageous location, as do other West Coast ports, to one degree or another.

If Seattle and the state of Washington decide to make permitting a long, drawn-out affair, what’s to stop major employers from deciding to look elsewhere, where the permits move faster and work begins sooner?

At a recent trade luncheon in Seattle, I shared these concerns with attendees and my colleague from BNSF, also a featured speaker that day. Obviously, concern for the environment remains a top consideration for any new project. But unfortunately, this environmental review has become highly politicized, leading to uncertainty and needless delays.

For instance, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency just concluded a second environmental analysis of the benefits of a shipping line converting to liquefied natural gas for propulsion systems. The second analysis showed what the first did, which is the reason the environmental community and governor supported the project four years ago. Now, much of that support has changed, even though the science has not. Will the Air Agency be forced to do yet another review? Who knows? And that’s a problem.

Other states and countries, like Vancouver, B.C. are already taking steps to compete with us. Every year we delay in making key investments – in rail lines, in maritime ports, in shipping terminals — puts us further and further behind our competitors. And the world is watching.

Policy decisions that add to costs matter – there’s no two ways about it.

If there is a lack of certainty from the political and regulatory worlds…and if that uncertainty cloud gets too big, then investment dollars and partners will go away. Eventually, investors will just move on, and as a result, our state and the people who rely on a trade-based economy, will feel the repercussions.

Rail and maritime remain the fastest, safest and most efficient means of moving cargo. Cargo owners around the world make decisions based on cost and reliability: how quickly and efficiently can they get their products to market at the lowest cost. The same can be said for domestic shippers, particularly Washington state farmers who need to move their world-class apples, cherries and wheat to global markets fast. Washington state and the City of Seattle would do well to expedite review processes for trade infrastructure projects — it can be done without cutting corners if there is a will to do so.

The maritime industry and the rail industry must continue to work together to enhance Washington’s trade-based economy. This is not an either-or scenario. This is about having both a robust rail network and a robust maritime industry. The two are complimentary in many ways. As we look to the future, it is imperative that our policies support timely investments in our state’s infrastructure. I can tell you first-hand that other ports in other states are doing their best to take business away from us.

We need to be investing in our ports, rail and other infrastructure. Otherwise, we won’t be able to compete in the global marketplace. And for Washington state, that’s a critical element of our trade-based economy.

Capt. Mike Moore is vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA), an independent, not-for-profit association focused on global trade. In May, he received the Seattle Propeller Club’s 2018 Puget Sound Maritime Achievement Award.

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