Oregon's auto import business crashes

Oregon's auto import business crashes

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ILLUSTRATION BY MARTIN GEE

Oregon’s once-booming auto import business, already limping along at half speed after two years of recession, has crashed into another speed bump with the Toyota recall debacle.

The Port of Portland is the largest auto importer on the West Coast, but volume has plummeted from 463,557 vehicles in 2006 to 240,683 in 2009.

According to port studies, each car that is brought into the U.S. through Portland generates a regional economic impact of $318. By that measure, the economic benefits of auto imports to the region have fallen by an annual $70.8 million from their recent peak. And that was before Toyota got caught up in controversy and saw sales slip to 10-year lows amid safety problems and massive recalls.

Toyota is one of three major auto importers using Portland as a gateway into the U.S. market, along with Honda and Hyundai, and it is a key tenant at the port’s sprawling 280-acre Terminal Four complex near the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland. The union longshoremen and Teamsters who unload auto vessels there rely on a steady flow of cars for their income, as do the employees of Toyota Logistics Services, who add accessories such as navigation, music and security systems to the vehicles before shipping them to market via rail or truck. The port is somewhat sheltered from the drop-off because it receives guaranteed minimum payments regardless of volume.

Port spokesman Josh Thomas says it’s too early to identify a drop in Toyota imports specifically related to the recalls and the associated bad press. “We wouldn’t want to speculate on that,” he says, adding that Toyota has been a “model tenant” that earned LEED gold certification for green building practices and invested in riverbank restoration to improve salmon habitat.

The general manager for Toyota Logistics Services did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the head of the local chapter of the International Longshore Workers Union. But with sales slipping and safety concerns spreading, it would be hard to make the case that Toyota’s troubles won’t cost Oregon both business and jobs. 

BEN JACKLET