Think Out Loud

What a container shipping facility would mean for Coos Bay

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Sept. 14, 2022 5:02 p.m. Updated: Sept. 21, 2022 10:07 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 14

The Port of Coos Bay is hoping to bring a container shipping facility to the region. Coos Bay is already the largest coastal deep water shipping port between San Francisco and Seattle. A shipping terminal could bring as many as two thousand jobs to the area. John Burns is the CEO of the port. He joins us to share opportunities this facility can bring and the impact it would have on the local economy.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you all this week from Coos Bay. On Monday, our first day here, we talked to a member of the city council who is pinning a lot of hopes for Coos Bay’s future on a new shipping terminal, a site where container ships could be loaded or unloaded. The Port of Coos Bay wants to turn those hopes into a reality. John Burns is the CEO of the Port and he joins us with the details. Thanks very much for joining us.

John Burns: Right. It’s good to be here.

Miller: Before we get to your plans for the future. Can you give us a sense for what the Port’s current business is?

Burns: Dave, the Port is responsible for what I call a three-legged stool, and that stool is comprised of the Charleston Marina Complex, which is an integral part of the Oregon Fishing Fleet. It’s the third largest community that attains processing and, and the fleet. The second part of the Port’s charge is that we own a 134 mile short-line railroad. We acquired that railroad about a decade ago. It had been abandoned by its previous owner, and we have resurrected that railroad to the point where we are now looking at doubling the rail volume in the next year.

Miller: And that’s that’s a suitable rail right now for, for serious freight?

Burns: It is.

Miller: Okay, that’s the second leg of your stool?

Burns: That is correct, and then the third leg of the stool is the maritime footprint here in the Coos Bay area. We are the non-federal sponsor of the Navigation Channel here in Coos Bay. Our Channel runs 15 miles from the the mouth of the bay, up to mile marker 15 here in Coos Bay proper.

Miller: Folks may have heard in my little intro before the show that this is known as the largest deepwater coastal port between San Francisco and Seattle. What does it mean? What does it mean to call it a deep water port?

Burns: So deep water ports, the deeper the water you have, that allows a ship to come into your harbor, means you can have larger ships, larger ships means you move more volume at one time, which means greater economy of scale. So the final product when you want to take that thing off the shelf at Walmart somewhere, it can be delivered cheaper because you can bring it in on a larger ship than if it were small commodities and you’d have to break them apart.

Miller: So the port here, and the terminal port that you hope to build, it  could be big enough to bring in how big a ship?

Burns: Right now we can bring in a panamax-size ship which can hold about 6,000 containers. The port has been working for the last 15 years on a pro project to deepen and widen the first nine miles of that channel, which would take us from our current 37 ft depth to 45 ft in depth. That will allow us to bring in post-panamax ships, which are much larger ships and they can bring in roughly 10 to 11,000 containers per ship.

Miller; And that’s the way of the shipping world that these ships keep getting bigger and bigger. And to, to compete, you need to actually have a deep enough support to enable the ships to to come and call on.

Burns: That’s correct.

Miller: So what’s the scale of the facility you hope to build here?

Burns: So our goal is to build three wharfs that will accommodate three ships simultaneously, and that, along with our railroad, will give us the capability to handle at least a million containers coming inbound from Coos Bay out into the United States and vice versa, bringing in a million containers to ship out into the global market.

Miller: Do you already have relationships lined up with carriers who say, ‘Yes, we will call on your Port, we will load or unload our stuff there?’


Burns: We are having many conversations with many carriers. There is a really compelling interest in having additional opportunities here on the West Coast. It’s like anything else. This is going to be probably a project that takes us out five years from now and most businesses will not sign on the dotted line until they have a much more firm vision of what is taking place and it is a reality that takes place for instance, you know, AP Moller Maersk will not want to do anything to upset one of their other ports that they use today, by declaring, ‘But we’ll go to Coos Bay because they’re going to do something there…,’ until such time as they have reasonable assurance that that will happen.

Miller: Have the supply chain disruptions, and in some ways catastrophes of the last 2.5 years, have they made it easier for you to sell this idea either to federal lawmakers, or to carriers. Is it easier to explain why you need to up the shipping capacity on the West Coast?

Burns: Absolutely. And we have been very successful in garnering tremendous support from all different segments of the supply chain if you will. And we also have tremendous support from the delegation that is in Washington, DC. We have submitted an application with the federal government to help us fund the construction of this project and we have almost 100 letters of support that vary everywhere from the West Coast to the East Coast, North and South and everything in between that you can imagine.

Miller: Would you be competing with the Port of Longview in Seattle and Portland and Long Beach and San Francisco- I mean, do those ports want you to exist?

Burns: Is there competition there? There’s always competition in any market place, but I will share what I have found in the port arena is that there’s usually a pretty high degree of mutual support that’s given. The ports of LA, Long Beach for instance. They want as much cargo as they can get through their facility, but they also understand their limitations. So they understand that if there needs to be a relief valve to help keep the supply chain free and moving, that it’s going to have to happen someplace else. And I guess,...

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Miller:  Okay, I’m gonna keep going through this high school announcement. I mean, it’s also fair to say that compared to the ports of Long Beach and LA, you are a kind of rounding error. Even in the biggest projections, you’re not going to be directly competing with a mega-port?

Burns: No, we’re not. And it goes back to, we were talking about the size of vessels, ports like LA, Long Beach, Seattle, Tacoma – They are positioned to handle much larger ships that carry much larger cargo. We will not be able to compete on that scale at this particular point in time.

Miller: How does the looming Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and a tsunami- how does it affect your plans for building new big infrastructure in a, in a place where at some point, disaster is going to happen?

Burns: We have a bit of an advantage as Alfred Adler would say, ‘What brings you up, brings you down,’ and vice versa. And where right now, today, we have Greenfield sites that are industrially zoned on deep water. We don’t have the infrastructure built today. So when we build this terminal, we can look to the future, not to the past and what we’re going to do. So we can build this terminal, so it will be in a, in a situation where it can sustain situations that otherwise, an existing port or terminal would not be able to.

Miller: In other words, you can build it with seismic readiness from the start?

Burns: Correct.

Miller: What’s the time frame you’re looking at? Let’s say Congress does come through with money, which is it a necessary component? First of all? Could this happen without Congress?

Burns: I think there are certain components that can be done without that support. There are other components that it will necessarily have to happen.

Miller: So we have about 45 seconds left. What is the potential time frame before this would actually be a working container ship port?

Burns: It’ll be about 5 to 6 years, two years, three years for permitting and three years for construction.

Miller: And what could it mean for jobs and economic development in the region?

Burns: We’re looking at about 3,000 jobs during construction and then once it’s up and running, we’ll be looking at about 4,000 jobs to 5,000 jobs in total between Coos Bay and Eugene, Oregon.

Miller: John Burns, thanks very much for joining us.

Burns: Thank you.

Miller: John Burns is the CEO of the Port of Coos Bay.

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