At the port of Tacoma one recent morning, Senior Director of Facilities Development Jeff Lincoln watched as 60-ton carriers loaded boxes onto trains bound for Chicago, New York and other destinations. In the North Intermodal Yard control tower, longshoremen guided the vehicles to rail cars.

These are busy days for the Port of Tacoma. Taiwan-based shipping carrier Evergreen Marine Corp. is moving on a $355-million relocation and expansion. It is moving to a larger area within the port, a project that will make Tacoma the largest West Coast container terminal north of Los Angeles.

GEARING UP Tacoma port plans expansion work. (Photo courtesy of Port of Tacoma)

Scheduled for completion late next year, the new Pierce County Terminal will comprise 237 acres. Evergreen's volume could ultimately match the port's total volume of 1.47-million 20-foot equivalency units (TEUs) last year. The 11% growth from 2001 pushed Tacoma's container volume past Seattle's for the first time, by about 100,000 TEUs.

Lincoln expects Tacoma to supplant Seattle as Puget Sound's busiest cargo hub. "We're ahead of Seattle in container volume and probably forever will stay that way," Lincoln says. "I think we've done a good job here. We're going to capitalize on it."

To do so, the port is spending about $300 million to remodel Pierce County Terminal and widen the waterway. Evergreen is adding $55 million for new equipment and has agreed to a 20-year lease peaking at $11.55 million.

The port has awarded civil engineering contracts for the terminal expansion to Long Beach, Calif.-based Moffatt & Nichol Engineers, Seattle-based KPFF Consulting Engineers, Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs Engineering Group and architect Helix Architecture, Tacoma. The terminal is scheduled for a 30% design review early next month. Wharf, yard, rail and building contracts and possibly demolition and utility work may be awarded in May, Lincoln says. The expansion is expected to generate nearly 1,200 full-time jobs statewide, including 1,760 person-years of construction.

Terminal work will begin after the port finishes moving automobiles stored at Pierce County Terminal into a new $40-million, 125-acre auto storage facility, Lincoln says. The port has completed dredging for the container terminal berth extension and plans 15 projects worth $400 million for grade separations and other freight rail improvements.

The port will also expand Evergreen's two current terminals to a combined 100 acres. Evergreen now occupies 76 acres at the port. It handles more than a fourth of West Coast container volume through Oakland, Los Angeles and Tacoma.

In Seattle, officials note their port is being retooled for cruise ships, but say it remains committed to global trade. Seattle hosted 250,000 cruise passengers in 2002 and 1.46 million TEUs. "The reality is that [Tacoma and Seattle] both lose market share to Southern California," says Charlie Sheldon, managing director of the Seattle port's seaport division. "If we can compete and...end up capturing more of the market, we all benefit."

Seattle has existing capacity to double container volume to 3 million TEUs a year, says spokesman Mick Shultz. The port has invested more than $600 million in cargo facility expansion since the mid-1990s. "If the Port of Tacoma doesn't get the customers, there's a good chance the Port of Seattle will, and vice versa," Shultz says. "What's good for one isn't necessarily bad for the other."