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Rapid changes in the world order may be threatening the Puget Sound area's role as a crossroads of global trade.
The collapse of communism, development of new transportation technologies, and the southward shift of Asian industrialization are transforming established roles for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
For years, Port of Seattle promotional literature has emphasized the strategic importance of the port's central position in the North Pacific. For instance, a late-'80s port brochure titled "The Seattle Short Cut" features a polar projection of the world portraying Seattle as a Pacific Rim crossroads, with passage further west blocked off by the looming bulk of the then-Soviet Union.
The brochure's copy continues the theme, emphasizing that Seattle is 600 miles closer to Japan than is the Port of Los Angeles, and claiming "a whopping 30-hour saving" in transit time over its California competitor.
"Seattle cuts time, distance and fuel cost," the brochure claims.
But in three key areas, the new realities of the 1990s are undermining that claim:
* New longer-distance jet transports are shifting trans-Pacific passenger traffic to mid-America hubs, gradually transforming Sea-Tac from a Pacific gateway into a regional international airport.
* Sea-air cargo through the Northwest is being whittled away by new sea-air traffic over Russia and other competing routes, and by Japan's recession.
* A new all-water route west from Southeast Asia through the Suez Canal to the U.S. East Coast threatens container traffic moving to the East Coast by rail from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
"The Suez is a symbol of that tendency in the world to free things up, and get cargo moving in all directions," says Don McCallian, general manager for NYK Line North America, one of the ocean carriers pioneering the Suez route. "The constant shift of manufacturing into Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, even Bombay, the constant shift down there into Southeast Asia, that will …