At the risk of trivializing the momentous events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in September 1989, 20 years later Western Seaboard ports are taking their own stumbling steps to unification, led by Seattle and Tacoma.
Although the announcement of their joint marketing and promotion effort is clouded in the usual baffling bureaucrat-speak, such as "…clear call to action to address our transportation system holistically" it appears they are locking arms to tell the shipping lines (for that, read China and Japan) to set GPS charts to their coordinates. Which sets maritime minds wondering about two even more important ports 1500 miles to the south, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
If ever there was a case for unification on an even bigger scale, these are the prime candidates. But, any such option is apparently unthinkable and impossible, according to the pundits. (Combined budgets are a little shy of $2 billion).
Legal, legislative and historical obstacles stand in the way and anyone doubting that is scoffed at. The two ports are part of two different cities, each with their own laws and institutions and, at some stage, an act of Congress would probably be needed to join them in maritime matrimony.
One critical difference is that Long Beach is largely autonomous and can make its own decisions, while LA is a department of city hall and has the city council peering over its shoulder (reflected in their respective web addresses, .com and .org).
There are probably dozens of other difficulties that make it impossible. But if one cuts to the chase, the biggest is human nature. Bureaucracy would receive a short, sharp setback, as dozens of people would lose their prestige, and some their jobs, from a merger. Forget the term "synergy", so beloved of Wall Street. That is the last thing the ports want.
And yet, so much could be accomplished, say shipping analysts. For a start, much time would be saved by dealing with only one marketing department. Prospective tenants, service suppliers and the like have to duplicate their presentations (and no doubt double the entertainment bills) when making proposals and bids. Regulations are different, for no apparent reason.
A huge saving would be made in the separate market surveys and business forecasts that consultants churn out at great public (i.e. taxpayer) expense. The common feature of these is that considerable space is devoted to what the neighboring port is doing.
Probably the most exasperating chore, according to industry insiders, is having to deal with two boards of harbor commissioners, plus their attendant officials and advisers.
Enormous amounts of time are wasted as a result.
No one should have any illusions that the ports are models of efficient administration as they are. An example is provided by John McLaurin, boss of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. Writing in the Journal of Commerce, he notes that LA is about to employ a "liaison" specifically to report to a city council member whose ward covers the port, carrying a maximum salary of $100,000 a year for three years. This "liaison" will tell the council member what is going on at the port – even though there is a PR department plus detailed minutes of the harbor commission meetings – and disregards the fact that the port by law has to tell the city council what is going on.
Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell, confounding the prognostications of the greatest political pundits of the world. A merger of two ports, which are divided only by a strip of water, would be simple by comparison.