Shipping Blues

By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune

Container volume at the Port of Lewiston fell below the break-even mark in 2011 and this year might be just as slow.

The port handled 3,653 containers of paper products as well as dried peas, garbanzo beans, lentils and wheat in the most recent calendar year. It averaged 304 containers a month, compared with the 400 containers a month needed to generate sufficient revenue to cover expenses, said port Manager David Doeringsfeld.

Other services the container yard offers, such as container repair for shipping lines and container inspection for steamship lines or shippers, covers the revenue gap, Doeringsfeld said.

The numbers were somewhat better in 2009 and 2010, with monthly averages of containers running at 393 and 338, respectively.

Volume could increase this year, but there are no guarantees. Two things working in the port’s favor are an improving economy and more weeks the Snake and Columbia river system will be open to barges, Doeringsfeld said.

In 2011, the river system was closed for three months so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could refurbish the locks at three of the dams between Lewiston and Portland. This year, barge traffic will be suspended for about three weeks, the length of time needed for regular annual maintenance.

At the same time, Doeringsfeld said he plans to visit the Port of Portland and his customers to see if his staff can make any changes to improve service. “The port doesn’t want to see the numbers go lower,” Doeringsfeld said. “It has to turn around.”

Factors hurting the Port of Lewiston are circumstances it can’t control, said Bill Newbry, general manager of the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative in Genesee. “The Port of Lewiston is well run. They have a good rapport with the shippers. The service is excellent.”

The cargo that leaves from the Port of Lewiston is transferred to ocean-going ships at the Port of Portland. Often the rates to send freight through Puget Sound ports are less expensive, even though the over-the-road costs are higher, Newbry said.

A big reason is how the ports are situated. Steamship lines pay one business to provide a pilot to get them across the bar of the Columbia River and another for a pilot that guides them along the river until they reach Portland, said Josh Thomas, a spokesman for the Port of Portland.

The pilots reach the ships by helicopter or boat, meet the captains on the bridges of their ships and take control of the vessels until they arrive in Portland, Thomas said.

Not counting the journey across the bar, it takes about six hours to get to Portland.

The trek from the Pacific Ocean also involves costs for more fuel and extra time of regular crew members, Newbry said. “It’s less expensive for them to go to the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle. They can go right up to the curb and park. ”

Even if prices weren’t a factor, Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative has had increasing difficulty with the destinations of the steamship lines that call on the Port of Portland, Newbry said.

A lot of times the steamships simply don’t have routes that take them to customers of Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, Newbry said.

In spite of that, Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative would like to use the Port of Lewiston more. It can pack containers for the port at its own sites, Newbry said.

A third party handles that task when the agricultural commodities move through Tacoma or Seattle, Newbry said. “We look at it as tamper proof. We’ve loaded the container. We’ve put the seal on the container. We know exactly what’s in the container.”

Whether Pacific Farmers Cooperative starts sending more of its products through the Port of Lewiston will probably depend on what happens in Portland.

The trends for outbound containers in Portland are similar to those in Lewiston.

The Port of Portland handled about 100,000 containers in the last three years, compared with more than 200,000 in each of the six consecutive years, starting in 1999.

One improvement for exporters this year will be the expansion of service from one of the carriers, Hapag-Lloyd, which is going from arriving every 11 days to every seven days and adding destinations such as Northern Africa, Thomas said.

Even though no easy fixes appear to be on the horizon, Doeringsfeld dismisses the idea that it might be time to discuss discontinuing the container yard at the Port of Lewiston. “We’re nowhere near that point.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.