Dodging Panama’s bullet

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It’s three years off, 3,500 miles away, a $10 billion project that at first glance seems to have little bearing on life in the Pacific Northwest. But when crews finish deepening and widening the 48-mile Panama Canal to allow more ships easy passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, there could be devastating consequences for thousands of workers at West Coast ports.

That Port of Vancouver leaders aren’t sweating is a testament to the strengths of Clark County’s biggest port.

The Panama Canal provides one of the safest and swiftest shipping routes from Asia and the West Coast of the U.S. to the East Coast and Europe. It’s about to get much bigger. An expansion scheduled to wrap up in 2014 will make it deeper and wider, doubling its capacity.

Since one ship can carry as much as 16 trains, Asian exporters are eager for an opportunity to save on transit and get goods closer to consumers.

That’s got many West Coast ports worried. Bill Bryant, a Port of Seattle commissioner, shared his concerns Wednesday during a talk before the Rotary Club of Vancouver. Today, goods bound for the Midwest enter through that port despite major shortcomings to the highway system they must navigate. When the Panama Canal work is completed, he worries that many shippers will choose to take a different route and move goods up through the Gulf of Mexico instead.

With the Canadian Port of Vancouver, B.C., investing heavily in upgrades to its road and rail access, ships that still come west could choose to dock in Canada instead of Puget Sound.

“British Columbia understands that there is a direct relationship between keeping freight and bringing jobs,” Bryant said. As Bryant decries the Seattle area’s freight system, we should all applaud the investments our local Port of Vancouver has been making.

The $137 million rail project is already improving the movement of goods. When it’s complete in 2017, local businesses, importers and exporters will be able to more efficiently move goods.

The Port of Vancouver’s cargo niches will also work in Clark County’s favor when the Panama Canal’s improvements add heightened competition.

Instead of handling standard-sized cargo containers like the majority of ports, including Portland and Seattle, Vancouver focuses in bulk goods like wheat and minerals, as well as large or unusually shaped products like windmill components and cars.

“These are not as easily diverted to the Panama Canal,” said Theresa Wagner, spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver. The local port is strategically positioned because it’s so close to Asia, and of a strong river and rail network linking it to Pacific Northwest and Midwest wheat producers, she said.

But don’t take her word for it.

The world’s largest materials company last year decided the Port of Vancouver was a good bet. BHP Billiton will undertake the largest single private construction project in the port’s history, bringing about 60 jobs by 2014. Add other companies moving to or growing at the port, and its cargo will climb from about 5 million tons to 15.5 million tons per year within the next half-decade.

At a bleak moment for the U.S. economy, when Clark County seems to lag behind, it’s nice to realize that sometimes local leaders do the right thing.