Infrastructure Projects: Big West Coast Ports Focus on Capacity, Navigation, Efficiency

The Port of Vancouver’s Centerm—short for Centennial Terminals—facility. Photo: Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

A variety of infrastructure projects are underway at major West Coast ports, with a focus on increasing capacity, improving navigation and enhancing efficiency.

To accommodate bigger ships and increased demand, ports have been expanding facilities, deepening and widening channels and turning basins and enhancing on-shore coordination with rail and truck transit.

They’ve also invested in digital infrastructure and green technology, both to meet emissions goals and to improve efficiency with several training, educational or other maritime facilities in the works.

To find out the latest news, Pacific Maritime reached out to port and port authority officials in Vancouver, BC, Tacoma, Wash., Seattle, and in California, in Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Vancouver Fraser Port Authority

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has been involved in several infrastructure projects recently that have enhanced capacity and improved commercial ship traffic at the Port of Vancouver.

“Our focus is on working in partnership to deliver the digital and physical infrastructure needed to enable Canada’s growing trade through the Port of Vancouver, in line with our federal mandate as a Canada Port Authority,” said Cliff Stewart, vice president of infrastructure.

As the local port authority, one of the biggest projects they were involved with over the past year was the completion of the Centerm (Centennial Terminals) expansion. The aim—along with the south shore access project—was to help meet the increasing demand for containers shipped through the port.

“Completing expansion of the Centerm container terminal last year was a major stride forward adding physical capacity to the port—increasing the terminal’s capacity by 60% while adding only 15% to its footprint,” Stewart said.

In addition to the footprint expansion, plans included reconfiguration of the Centerm container terminal, creation of a new overpass on Centennial Road, changes to Waterfront Road to create a continuous port road from Canada Place to Highway 1, removal of the Heatley Road overpass and coordination with tenants on road maintenance within port lands.

The port authority completed extensive environmental and technical studies, along with three rounds of public engagement to inform the construction planning. Early discussions began in 2015, construction started in 2019 and the project wrapped up in spring 2023.

Following a thorough review of the application, the port authority last October approved a permit from Seaspan to expand its drydock facilities in North Vancouver.

The action came with 61 conditions of approval, many in place in order to ensure the project’s environmental and community impacts are properly mitigated. Several of the conditions are aimed at addressing the community concerns around noise and lighting.

Plans call for increasing the water lot size and installing a work pontoon and two additional drydocks.

The port also has been investing in digital infrastructure.

“Our ongoing collaboration with shipping lines, terminals, railways, other supply chain partners and governments on digital infrastructure—including digital tools, collaboration and data sharing—will ensure infrastructure is used to its full potential, and in the past year we’ve made positive progress,” Stewart said.

In October, the port authority launched a new centralized scheduling system for commercial ships, the first of its kind at a Canadian port. As part of the Active Vessel Traffic Management Program, the new system is designed to improve safety, reliability and efficiency of goods movement at the Port of Vancouver.

It will help coordinate and optimize commercial ship traffic throughout the port authority’s jurisdiction, with the goal of improving both ships’ turnaround times and the volume of cargo handled by Port of Vancouver terminals.

In March, the Northwest Seaport Alliance unveiled phase two of its Terminal 5 modernization project in Seattle. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

The new system was co-developed with DHI SeaPort OPX and based on the NCOS Online ship traffic management system.

Seattle and Tacoma

The Northwest Seaport Alliance operates the marine cargo terminals at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, both of which have been busy with infrastructure projects recently.

In March, the Seaport Alliance, SSA Terminals and other partners unveiled phase two of the Terminal 5 modernization project in Seattle. The program’s aim is to increase cargo capacity, grow job opportunities in the Puget Sound region, and ensure the gateway remains competitive in the trans-Pacific trade.

“The opening of phase two of Terminal 5 marks a significant milestone for both economic expansion and increased sustainable operations in the NWSA gateway,” Port of Seattle Commission President and Seaport Alliance Co-Chair Hamdi Mohamed said in a statement.

“Together with our partners, the terminal boasts investments in shore power, state-of-the-art stormwater systems and hybrid-electric equipment alongside increased cargo capacity which ensures more goods can move through the terminal in a sustainable and efficient manner,” she said.

Following a joint investment of more than half a billion dollars, construction on the project commenced in July 2019. The reconfigured north berth opened to cargo ships in January 2022 with the completion of phase one of the modernization project. After the reconfigured south berth was completed in March, the full 185-acre facility became operational and welcomed MSC Lily as the inaugural vessel.

The two reconfigured berths with six super-post Panamax cranes are expected to enhance operational efficiency. On-dock rail facilities, along with additional refrigerated plug-ins, would offer increased benefits to agricultural exporters while also reducing truck traffic near Terminal 5.

The project also marks a significant advancement in environmental infrastructure in the NWSA gateway. Terminal 5 is the first international container terminal to offer shore power capability at both berths, according to officials.

At NWSA’s South Harbor, officials are working on the expansion of Husky Terminal after receiving a $54 million grant from the federal 2023 Port Infrastructure Development Program.

A conceptual design image of the planned Port Maritime Center at the Port of Tacoma. Rendering by TCF Architecture/Courtesy of Port of Tacoma.

“The award will launch a series of critical improvements at Husky Terminal in our South Harbor that will further enhance our gateway’s global competitiveness,” Port of Tacoma Commissioner and NWSA Managing Member Deanna Keller said in a statement. “By densifying the terminal and expanding its refrigerated cargo capacity, we will be able to improve service for importers and help agricultural exporters move more cargo to international markets.”

The aim of the project is to advance the safety, efficiency and reliability of cargo movement, while also supporting the gateway’s environmental goals. Some of the key components include reconfiguring the terminal yard, expanding refrigerated container capacity and enhancing the terminal efficiency measures.

Officials noted that the terminal yard’s reconfiguration is an essential aspect of the project, as it would optimize truck circulation, thereby enhancing the flow of cargo through the terminal while reducing truck idling on terminal.

Additional reefer racks and power supply units would triple the refrigerated container capacity at the marine terminal, thereby helping meet the increasing demand for refrigerated goods. The terminal’s efficiency also will increase with the reconfiguration of on-terminal structures, which would facilitate smoother cargo movements, shorter truck-idling times, and eliminate current pinch points.

The project builds on NWSA’s previous investment in the modernization of Husky Terminal that reconfigured the wharf and enhanced the terminal’s capacity to handle larger ships.

Harbor Deepening

Both the Tacoma and Seattle ports are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on navigation improvement projects that would allow dredging of the waterway and berth areas, increasing the depth from 51 to 57 feet. The deepening projects are part of a modernization initiative for the gateway that began nearly a decade ago.

“The deepening projects are critical to the future competitiveness of our gateway and driving economic activity across our region. The deepening ensures that ultra-large vessels have unrestricted access to our terminals and that cargo and job opportunities remain strong in our harbors for decades to come,” Port of Seattle Commissioner and NWSA Managing Member Sam Cho said.

The aim is to address the evolving needs of container ships growing in size. Several integrated feasibility studies and environmental assessments have been completed and results indicate that deepening both the Blair Waterway in Tacoma and the West Waterway in Seattle would enhance the competitiveness of the gateway and enable the waterways to meet the heightened draft requirements of larger ships.

“A thriving working waterfront requires critical infrastructure investments. The ability to accommodate larger ships will help to keep our gateway competitive in the marine cargo business,” Keller said.

For the Blair Waterway, the Port of Tacoma hopes to use clean dredge material to build the East Commencement Habitat Opportunity project, which would provide salmon habitat and help reduce erosion along Marine View Drive by breaking waves during storms.

On April 23, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) announced that the Seaport Alliance received $16 million in federal funding from the Reduction of Truck Emissions at Port Facilities grant program. The funds will be used to support deploying 36 to 58 zero-emission drayage trucks.

Port of Tacoma Commission President and Seaport Alliance Co-Chair Kristin Ang said the funds are instrumental in advancing the Alliance’s Zero-Emission Drayage Truck Incentive Program and accelerating the transition to zero-emission drayage trucks in the Puget Sound.

In 2020, the Seaport Alliance and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma made a commitment to reach zero maritime emissions by 2050 or earlier. To achieve the goal, the ports are making strategic infrastructure investments across various port operations areas.

In addition to the trucks, the ports are enhancing shore power at the international container terminals. Terminal 5 now has two berths with operational shore power capability and Husky Terminal will complete shore power construction later in 2024. Design for shore power capability is also underway at Washington United Terminals and Terminal 18.

The Port of Tacoma is well into the design phase of the Port Maritime Center, which is a partnership with Tacoma Public Schools. Plans call for a new business office and a Maritime|253 skills center.

The center, to be located along the Foss Waterway, will have office space for the port and NWSA, as well as new commission meeting space. Next door would be Maritime|253, a career and technical education center open free of charge to high school students across Pierce County.

Construction of both centers is expected to begin around March 2025. The skills center is expected to be completed in the summer of 2026, and the port building at the end of 2026.

The Port of Tacoma is conducting a master-planning effort regarding the future of the Earley Business Center, a 50-acre site at the end of the Blair-Hylebos Peninsula. The site, which has a long history of shipbuilding, is currently home to several maritime services businesses.

Many of the current buildings are nearing the end of their useful lives. A new study recommends the port redevelop the property with a focus on water-dependent users, including existing tenants who need direct access to Puget Sound. 

Meanwhile, the Port of Seattle is working on a goal to phase out seaport-related emissions by 2050, which includes advancing a solution to bring shore power to its downtown waterfront cruise terminal at Pier 66. The project would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cruise vessels at berth.

The power submarine cable arrived in Elliott Bay in mid-July 2023 and crews were preparing the connection by November. In January, teams successfully placed the mile-long cable. Shore power is expected to be operational at the terminal at Pier 66 during the 2024 cruise season.

The project’s total estimated cost is $44 million.

The Port of Oakland has a number of infrastructure projects in the works. Photo: Port of Oakland.

Port of Oakland

At the annual State of the Port 2024, Port of Oakland Executive Director Danny Wan highlighted proposed infrastructure and environmental projects that will “re-frame the future of shipping and transportation in Northern California.”

Wan mentioned plans to widen shipping-turning basins and efforts to move toward the port’s zero-emissions goal as examples.

“2024 is the year we take action to move the port forward,” Wan said. “Modernization will help us grow while reducing our impact on surrounding communities.”

The port is proposing to widen both turning basins to accommodate vessels up to 1,310 feet. The port has said that the project would allow for safer navigation for large vessels, improved waterways for more efficient goods movement, reduced delays and vessel wait times, improved flexibility for vessels to connect to shore power and reduced total emissions.

“Investing in the port’s turning basins is essential for ensuring a cleaner future and moving goods through the port safely and efficiently,” Port Maritime Director Bryan Brandes said. “We are pleased to be partnering with the Army Corps (of Engineers) to meet the demands of an evolving shipping industry.”

In October, the draft environmental impact report for widening the turning basins was released. After port officials review public comments on the draft EIR, the port’s Board of Commissioners will consider the final document.

In terms of digital infrastructure, the port, along with Parsons Corporation, Advent eModal, Mobile Programming and key stakeholders, in January announced the launch of Freight Intelligent Transportation System (FITS) at the port.

Officials have been working on developing and implementing FITS since 2020. Now that construction and system integration is complete, the port is entering the ongoing operations and maintenance phase.

“The launch of the Freight Intelligent Transportation System is a bold new step forward for the Port of Oakland,” Brandes said. “This gives us real-time visibility on goods movement. Our customers will be able to move cargo through the port more efficiently and securely.”

The port selected Parsons for a five-year contract to provide operations and maintenance services. Parsons and its partners will leverage artificial intelligence with video and data analytics to predict freight wait times and develop predictive models around road blockages at train crossings.

The data collected also will be used to create customized dashboards for custom border protection and port-shipment tracking.

In June, the California Transportation Commission voted to approve a $42 million grant to the Port of Oakland for its green power microgrid project, which would increase the port’s ability to deliver green-sourced power to its seaport operations, and also increase the availability of green power for ships docked and refrigerated containers in transit.

“We are very excited about this next step in decarbonizing port power and operations at the Port of Oakland,” Wan said. “The Green Power Microgrid Project is a major milestone on our road to zero emissions.”

The total project cost is $60 million, with the port providing approximately $18 million in funds.

Plans call for 145 heavy duty/class 8 electrical chargers at seven locations for yard, dockside and on-road and transit vehicle use. This addition would increase the number of zero-emissions vehicles that can be supported from 50 to over 1,000 throughout the seaport.

The Wilmington Waterfront Promenade at the Port of Los Angeles. Photo: POLA.

Port of Los Angeles

“The Port of Los Angeles has a wide range of infrastructure projects in various stages that invest both in our community and operations,” Port of L.A. spokesman Phillip Sanfield told Pacific Maritime.

 The port’s 2024-25 fiscal year begins July 1, and the budget calls for more than $257 million in terminal, transportation security and public access projects, Sanfield noted.

In the coming fiscal year, L.A. is investing $52 million in terminal improvements, $50 million in transportation projects, $52 million in public access and environmental enhancements and  $97 million in maritime services.

Work on an interchange that acts as an access link to the L.A. waterfront, the community of San Pedro, Terminal Island and the West Basin Container Terminal, began at the port in March.  

The state Route 47/Vincent Thomas Bridge and Front Street/Harbor Boulevard interchange is being reconfigured with a number of enhancements, under which the $130 million transportation project would improve traffic safety and operational deficiencies at the existing interchange.

Plans include replacing the westbound offramp from the bridge, currently located on the south side, with a new off-ramp on the north side. Additional improvements include re-aligning the existing westbound on-ramp onto the SR-47 and Interstate 110 connector; modifying the westbound off-ramp onto Harbor Boulevard, and modifying the eastbound on-ramp onto the bridge toward Terminal Island.

The interchange reconfiguration will reduce travel times, alleviate congestion and improve motorist and pedestrian safety at this highly traveled juncture. Officials expect construction to be complete in 2026.

The port’s Wilmington Waterfront Promenade, which began construction in 2020, officially opened in February. The $77.3 million project creates a nine-acre “window on the waterfront” for the community, and includes a public pier, public dock, public restrooms with a green roof, playground and parking lots.

Another major capital project is the restoration of berths 177-182. 

The port is constructing about 382 linear feet of concrete wharf (62 feet wide). The new wharf is to partially replace an existing wharf that was extensively damaged by fire. Work also includes slope erosion repair and bollard upgrades.

The State Route 47 interchange at the Port of Los Angeles. Photo courtesy the Port of L.A.

Construction on the $23.1 million project started in 2023 and is expected to finish in 2025.

Currently in the design phase is a joint effort by the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to build a Goods Movement Workforce Training Facility. It would be the first such training center in the U.S. dedicated to the goods movement industry, according to port officials.

The facility would replicate goods movement environments, such as marine cargo terminals, providing a training environment for workers. The facility also would provide the regional workforce with skills to succeed in careers that utilize new and cleaner technologies.

An estimated construction start date is still to be determined. The project’s estimated cost is $150 million.

Port of Long Beach

There are a number of capital improvement and infrastructure projects happening at the Port of Long Beach. Officials told Pacific Maritime that the port has $2.3 billion in capital expenditures planned for the next 10 years.

Early this year, Long Beach went out to bid for its first construction contract to begin building the Pier B on-dock rail support facility, which has been dubbed the “centerpiece” of a series of improvements the port has been making to its on-dock rail program. Officials said 2024 will be a “pivotal” year for the project.

The facility’s designed to shift more cargo to on-dock rail, where containers are taken to and from marine terminals by trains.

“The need for the Pier B project is for efficiency reasons,” explained Mark Erickson, the port’s deputy chief harbor engineer. “One train can haul the equivalent of 750 truck trips worth of cargo. So our strategy at the Port of Long Beach is to strengthen our on-dock rail capacity and get goods to and from the port by train rather than by truck.” 

After more than 15 years of planning and design, construction is scheduled to start in September. The project is expected to help the port stay competitive and meet environmental targets by allowing railroads to more frequently assemble longer trains to move goods more efficiently while also limiting truck traffic. 

The rail yard would more than double in size from its current 82 acres expanding the port’s existing space. The $1.57 billion facility is to be built in phases, with construction scheduled for completion in 2032.

The POLB has used funds from a $14.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration to work on Terminal Island wye realignment, which is expected to dramatically improve rail efficiency throughout the port complex, especially on Terminal Island, home to the port’s largest container terminal, Pier T.

The $40 million project would also reduce switching conflicts by adding a new lead track on Pier T and two new storage tracks on Pier S, according to port officials.

Construction, which began in 2021, is scheduled for completion later this year. 

In 2023, POLB also completed its Fourth Track at Ocean Boulevard project, a $25 million endeavor that added another line to remove a rail bottleneck.

The port is working on deepening and widening the channels aimed at making room for the largest tankers and container vessels, reducing the need for large vessels to lighten or to transfer liquid bulk cargo or containers to smaller vessels before entering the harbor. It would also cut back on delays related to tidal flows.

Dredging is projected to start in 2028 and take about three years. One key element is to deepen the Long Beach approach channel from 76 to 80 feet. The port is sharing the cost of the $209 million project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Long Beach is also proposing to develop “Pier Wind,” which aims to become the nation’s largest facility at any U.S. seaport specifically designed to assemble floating offshore wind turbines.

Massive, thousand-foot-tall wind turbines built in Long Beach would be towed by sea to designated “wind farm” areas off the coast of Central and Northern California. 

This project would help California meet a goal of producing 25 gigawatts of renewable, offshore wind power by 2045, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The project is currently projected to cost $4.7 billion dollars.   

Sara Hall has 15 years of experience at several regional and national magazines, online news outlets, and daily and weekly newspapers, where coverage has  included reporting on local harbor activities, marine-based news, and regional and state coastal agencies. Her work has included photography, writing, design and layout.