Now in a new year, there still remain tremendous amounts of uncertainty around the incoming Trump Administration’s proposed agenda when it comes to trade and infrastructure.
But the President-elect’s pledge to address and reform our nation’s aging infrastructure system — as well as the traditional bipartisan support for such initiatives — could be an opportunity to bridge our nation’s extreme partisan divide, foster a more competitive economy and create and sustain good-paying jobs. And for states like Washington, it can build on this potential momentum by addressing key policies central to the state’s maritime and trade prowess.
Due to its strategic geographical location and past infrastructure investments, few states have benefitted more from international trade than Washington. The state’s legacy as a natural corridor to and from the Pacific for a myriad of commodities and products relies upon a strong, well-integrated transportation sector. And while this network is built upon many forms of transport and providers, one industry that plays a significant role is Washington’s robust maritime industry and specifically its port and logistics sector.
With more than 75 state-recognized port authorities, Washington’s seaports remain crucial links to surface transportation systems in supply chains while ensuring a large portion of trade opportunities remain economic boons to the state. In fact, in 2014, Washington ports exported the fourth highest level of commerce (by weight) and had the 5th highest level of cargo overall (by weight) of any U.S. state. And the deep water harbors of the Puget Sound — home to two of the state’s largest ports including Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma — support 48,000 jobs and contribute nearly $4.3 billion in economic activity.
However, even with existing infrastructure and Washington’s coastal position, the current reality is the state continues to lose ground to competition. Market share of West Coast ports as a whole has declined in recent years, and Washington is among the hardest hit.
From 2000 to 2015, the Puget Sound region’s market share declined 33 percent. While there are many contributors to market shifts, a number of factors including service challenges, capacity improvements among competitor regional ports and even actions leading up to the Panama Canal expansion last summer have all contributed to this precarious shift.
The reality is clear: Washington maritime and trade sectors continue to hemorrhage losses and are ceding competitiveness rapidly and unnecessarily. But, if included in the next sweeping phase of infrastructure reform are policies remedying Washington’s most severe maritime policy challenges, the state could improve its chances to begin to see the growth and prosperity it has long deserved and been close to generating.
In a new report released in October, I joined with study co-author Steven Rothberg of Kirkland-based Mercator International to examine challenges threatening future growth potential of Washington’s port and logistics sector. The report focuses on three primary challenges, including looming freight infrastructure investment needs, unclear project delivery timelines, and a need for better coordination amongst stakeholders.
And by looking at key examples of maritime success in North America, we believe Washington state leaders can address and remedy deterrents stifling the state’s competitive edge.
One particular challenge is the issue of project siting and permitting which continues to plague Washington's port industry. It is critical to an infrastructure project's success that it receive timely consideration under the permitting process to ensure that the project's benefits — both public and private — are realized. But if Washington bears a reputation for being more unsupportive to maritime and port business than other states, new project opportunities will look elsewhere for siting and existing employers will eventually follow.
Among other ideas, our report suggests the formation of an ad hoc or even permanent committee or office within the state to instill policies and best practices for improved permitting coordination between state agencies as well as coordination with federal agencies.
Washington has all the potential in the world to dominate North American maritime trade. But, lawmakers must embrace greater freight infrastructure investments, identify and improve delivery for critical state projects and increase coordination between government and industry port stakeholders to achieve this.
There has never been a greater time to address these needed changes than with the federal government eyeing a new infrastructure reform. The time is now, and once successful, Washington’s maritime sector be safeguarded for decades to come.
David Matsuda is the former U.S. Maritime Administrator under the Obama Administration.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.