Friday, June 25, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

Students across the English-speaking world may recognize the above phrase as a prime example of a palindrome – a line or word reading identically in both directions – which, in this case, is particularly unique in that it also tells a story.

In my interpretation, the tale begins with one man, chief Panama Canal engineer George Washington Goethals, executing a plan to trim a ship’s journey between two great oceans in half. In tropical heat, he labors against the naysayers, disease and death, carving from the Panamanian isthmus a spectacular feat of engineering which will one day alter the course of human history.

Here comes the point where you most likely are wondering what a palindrome, Goethals and a man-made ditch in Central America has to do with Vancouver, Washington – or anything relating to our lives in 2010, for that matter.

But in yet another example of our regional economy’s dependence on developments occurring far from our borders, what happens in Panama today could affect Southwest Washington a great deal tomorrow.

More than 3,000 miles away, the Panamanian government, which took over operations of the canal in 1999, is currently in the midst of an effort to double the waterway’s capacity – a project that has knitted many a West Coast port director and administrator’s brow with worry.

Why? Today, ships laden with cargo, many of which come from Asian nations, have to wait outside the canal’s locks to pass through to the open sea to ports on the U.S. Gulf Coast and beyond. The fear among many working at Western U.S. ports, including those at ports in Southwest Washington, is that easing delays on the Panama Canal will make Gulf and East Coast destinations more attractive to Asian exporters.

Luckily for us, agencies like the Port of Vancouver are already planning to increase overall port capacity and rail access to make our own waterways more competitive. For example, the ongoing $137 million West Vancouver Freight Access project looks to expand rail service to its current maritime customers and industrial tenants.

But much more needs to be done, especially at regional economic “choke-points” like that at the Port of Kalama, still bedeviled by periodic passenger and freight train congestion.

In addition, critical river improvement projects like the reconstruction of jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River, battered by more than a century’s worth of coastal storms, need to be adequately funded by the federal government. And local port directors need to do even more to work together to push forward regional solutions to regional problems.

Because no one port is an island onto itself. And just like in a palindrome, one cannot expect our increasingly globalized economy to flow in just one direction.

A summertime hiatus

Due to this humble managing editor’s impending summer vacation, Just Business will next appear on Wednesday, July 14. In my absence, I welcome feedback on past columns and ideas for future ones, which I will gladly review when I return.

As always, thanks for reading.