A Blessing and a Curse For Northwest Truckers
After a series of six meetings in July and August, officials from the Port of Portland and several state agencies are no closer to reaching a solution to help businesses and agricultural producers overcome transportation obstacles that were created when major container Hanjin Shipping Co. and Hapag-Lloyd shipping lines stopped serving Portland in the spring. The problems extend far beyond Portland. The Port of Lewiston in Idaho shut down its container operation, which existed primarily to allow farmers to ship their products down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Port of Portland and then to overseas destinations. That leaves farmers from eastern Washington to Montana with an unpalatable plate of options for moving this year’s harvest from fields to Puget Sound ports and ultimately overseas.
The trucking industry in the Northwest is going full bore trying to meet the needs of shippers to and from in-state and from the rest of the world. It’s no small matter—Oregon exports significant shares of the U.S. wheat, forest products, civil aviation plans and more than a few electronic parts, not to mention the odd truck or two—nearly $21 billion in products.
Trucking and rail are the only options for those who previously shipped or received products on container vessels through Portland. The goal of the meetings that start next week is to develop some interim solutions, including recommendations for investment in transportation infrastructure to be presented to the 2016 Legislature, until marine container service can, hopefully, be restored. But even short-term fixes could prove difficult to execute.
Not Enough Trucks, Drivers
Not only are there not enough trucks or drivers to manage the bulk transportation to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, but the road access is bad and the state legislature has failed to fund new projects to cross the Columbia River into Washington. Rail service from central and eastern Oregon is limited to long-haul service and there is a shortage of Ag rail cars to begin with.
Weight limits for trucks in California are lower than weight limits in Oregon and Washington, discouraging companies from serving all three states with the same truck. A uniform national weight standard would solve that problem, but getting that through Congress in this session is next to impossible.
The workshops did reveal one transportation shortcoming worthy of legislative consideration: a multi-modal facility, or maybe two, outside of the Portland area where goods can be transferred from trucks to trains. Such facilities would reduce the number of miles that trucks are on the road, something that would be appreciated by anyone who regularly has to drive on Interstates 5 or 84. Creation of such “load centers” likely would require state investment, which possibly could come from ConnectOregon a lottery-funded initiative to support intermodal transportation.
More than anything else, the meetings should show how high the economic price for Oregon and parts of neighboring states will be if the port is unable to revive its container operations at Terminal 6.
The shortage of truckers also needs to be addressed, even if container shipping resumes. In part, the lack of qualified truck drivers reflects decades-long neglect of vocational training. At a time when family-wage blue-collar jobs are in short supply in Oregon, state agencies have failed to promote opportunities in trucking and to facilitate training. Increasing the supply of highly qualified drivers helps keep goods moving and increases safety on roads.