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Port looks ahead for new connections, deeper channel

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The Latest
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The docking of the Westwood Victoria in Portland early Sunday morning brought cause for celebration at the Port of Portland, but it doesn’t signal an end to the rough waters in the future of shipping.  A new service linking Portland to Japan and Korea may alleviate some of the ailments nagging the port, but whether it will last remains to be seen.

The new line is partially restoring the crucial service that disappeared when the Tokyo “K” Line left Portland in April of 2009 due to the economic downturn. The Westwood ships will carry between 220 and 240 containers once a month, for six months, with an option to extend the contract for another year.

For agricultural producers it will save time and money from having to truck their goods north to ports in Tacoma or Seattle, but it isn’t attempting to fill the shoes of the “K” Line service that left. “K” Line ran weekly and included refrigeration service,  with temperature control for produce and other more fragile cargo.

Westwood will  serve dry goods only, which will bode well for lumber and hay producers but will severely limit the producers who can use the service. Brenda Barnes, the director of customer services at the freight forwarder Allports Forwarding Inc. in Portland said the service is both good and bad news.

“It’s only 200 container slots once a month so they can’t accommodate everyone’s products, so yes it's positive they are coming in, but a “K” Line like service would be more positive,” said Barnes.

Overall container traffic is down 8% year-to-date and exports are down 16.4%.

Even with the new line there are still equipment issues limiting what can leave the dock. Unlike most ports, Portland exports far more than it imports, which has created a lot of problems this year as containers leave Portland and don’t return when ships are either halted or slowed because of the recession. That means that sometimes when farmers land big deals they have trouble shipping the goods. With the harvest coming, competition for containers and vessel space will heat up.

“Demand is going to spike again in the next month or so,” said Barnes. “You are not going to get on the ships you want and there aren’t enough containers.”

Marine Operations Marketing Manager Steve Mickelson said the port doesn’t expect any new services any time soon and is putting most of its energy into preparing for a major change in management. The port has signed a 25-year lease with Philippines International Container Terminal Service to run its most important marine terminal. The agreement brings in well-connected CEO Enrique Razon Jr., who is worth an estimated $620 million, who will take over starting February of 2011. Razon and the new company will handle all the operating and marketing for the port. The new company already owns a number of ports in the Philippines and the hope is that Razon has a more expansive global reach than the current management.

Razon will have a deeper channel to sell to shippers as a 5-year, $186 million dredging project wraps up, increasing channel depth from 40 to 43 feed. The added depth will allow ships to carry heavier cargo making the port more attractive to bigger vessels and more shipping lines like Westwood.

Time will tell whether a bigger company and a deeper channel can boost Portland's shipping fortunes.

Jessica Hoch is an online reporter for Oregon Business.



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