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Like other ports around the country, the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) is seeing an influx of imports as retailers restock inventories depleted during the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for the holiday season.

The NWSA reported Tuesday it had its best month of 2020 in September and the highest total monthly containerized volume since October 2019.

Full imports, while still down 6.8% year-over-year, reached the highest monthly volume since September 2019, the NWSA said, adding that compared to August, full imports and exports were up 13.6% and 21.9%, respectively.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, handled a total of 308,682 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in September, an 11.1% decline compared to last year.

The NWSA said the economic fallout from COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains around the world and its gateway is no different. The two ports had 59 blank sailings through September, surpassing the total number of canceled sailings in all of 2019.

Another sign of the times can be seen in auto volumes, a major business for the NWSA. New car sales have taken a big hit during the pandemic, and auto volumes through the end of September at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are down 25% year-over-year to 108,628 units. 

“We’re hopeful to see a stronger rebound as we close out the year and certainly as we look into 2021,” said NWSA CEO John Wolfe.  

Total overall container volumes for the year are down 16.8% compared to 2019. The NWSA handled a total of 2,419,741 TEUs from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30. Loaded imports have declined 15%, while full exports have decreased 13.9%.

But with the September uptick, the NWSA is “closing the gap on volumes from last year to this year and that’s encouraging news,” Wolfe said during a press briefing Tuesday, adding later, “We have underutilized capacity so we’re in a really good position to handle more volume.” 

In addition to the September surge, the NWSA shared more good news Tuesday. It said the U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded the NWSA a $10.7 million grant for the Terminal 5 uplands modernization project. 

“This is going to help us deliver on Terminal 5 and make Terminal 5 one of the premier terminals on the whole West Coast — so exciting news there,” Wolfe said. 

The grant will support on-terminal rail infrastructure improvements and the expansion of refrigerated container plug capacity. The first phase of the Terminal 5 project is expected to be completed next spring. 

NWSA Co-chairman Peter Steinbrueck noted Tuesday that the Terminal 5 marine operator “has expressed increasing concern about the future success of the T5 project and its continued use of Seattle’s marine terminals at both T5 and T18 on Harbor Island if access continues to be compromised by the high bridge closure.” 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in July declared the cracked upper level of the West Seattle Bridge, which has been closed since March, a civil emergency.

“The bridge itself, while it doesn’t carry a tremendous amount of freight traffic, the high bridge provides about 60% of the capacity east-west in the transportation network there so, in other words, 60% of the capacity is reduced by the shutdown of the bridge, forcing traffic onto the street grid,” Steinbrueck said. 

He said the mayor had been expected to make a decision on whether the bridge would be replaced or repaired Wednesday, but it has been delayed, “with no clear indication as to when she will decide.”

“At this point, we do not have sufficient information from the city to make an informed judgment about the options that have been under study for some time. Nor do we believe that the project is in a place to move forward with a specific repair versus replacement option at this point. There are too many unknowns, too much uncertainty right now and we have to independently assess what is in the best strategic interest to the Northwest Seaport Alliance and to our gateway at Terminal 5,” Steinbrueck said. 

But, Steinbrueck noted, “discretionary cargo must move efficiently and quickly to and from those terminals or it likely will go to other ports on the West Coast or elsewhere.” 

Ports of Seattle, Tacoma foresee better volumes ahead

Bridge ‘critical’ to Northwest Seaport terminal operations

NWSA focused on keeping commerce moving during pandemic

Click for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.