The worsening labor dispute at West Coast container ports is causing shippers to search for alternate pathways to and from Asia.
An obvious place to look is the thriving Vancouver, B.C., port, in Canada. But officials there say they can't absorb much diverted traffic.
Port of Tacoma Commissioner Don Johnson says there's a real fear that shipping customers could shift business away from clogged Northwest ports and not come back.
"There have been diversions," Johnson says. "How that impacts us, we will not know until it is all said and done. What's the price tag we're going to pay when it's solved? We don't know."
Johnson notes that the British Columbia ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert have been gaining market share.
On Thursday, Port Metro Vancouver reported its second consecutive year of record-breaking cargo volumes.
Port spokesman John Parker-Jervis said its terminals "definitely are operating right close to capacity," so it can offer little relief to Northwest shippers caught in the U.S. port slowdown.
A spokeswoman for container terminal operator GCT echoed the thought, saying Vancouver had no interest in "one-off diversions" that could get in the way of cargo movement by regular customers.
Port Metro Vancouver has initiated a multi-billion dollar expansion plan, but the payoff from its ongoing series of projects is incremental and will take years.
Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia is recording big container volume increases off of a much smaller base. Its rail connection aligns with Midwestern destinations, though, which is not particularly useful for cargo originating in or destined for the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman wrote in an email that his agency has seen no significant uptick recently in cargo traffic across the border with Washington state.
Longer-term shipping traffic trends show more Asian cargoes bypassing West Coast ports entirely. Container ships are calling on U.S. Gulf Coast and East Coast terminals instead.
On Thursday, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma again urged the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the terminal operators group, the Pacific Maritime Association, to reach an immediate contract resolution.
"This protracted negotiation is resulting in widespread economic damage and will have a lasting impact on our state’s economy," the ports said in a joint statement. "We risk losing our role as a critical gateway as shippers seek alternatives to West Coast ports."
Earlier this week, the Pacific Maritime Association announced it would not hire longshore crews for four of the next five days to load or unload ships. The employers' group explained it did not want to pay extra weekend and holiday pay while dock workers engaged in a slowdown.
The union denies that its members are deliberately working slower and accuses the employer side of trying to escalate pressure on workers.
ILWU and PMA negotiators resumed talks about a new contract on Thursday in San Francisco. Tentative agreements covering major issues such as pay and benefits were reportedly agreed to weeks ago. It is unclear how many sticking points remain pertaining to such items as arbitration rules and job security. The negotiation affects 29 West Coast seaports.
Ports of Tacoma and Seattle joint press release
Port Metro Vancouver 2014 stats: