Just when most West Coast ports are crunched for space, the Port of Tacoma has enough spare land for three more container dockyards — and the port's new executive director sees opportunity ahead.

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Just outside Timothy Farrell’s office, three looming cranes snatch container boxes off trailers and stack them neatly aboard a ship moored in the Port of Tacoma’s gritty Sitcum Waterway.

For the port’s new executive director, the movements of workers and machines just outside his window is a constant reminder of what’s at stake as Tacoma tries to capitalize on an increasingly rare commodity in the cargo business: space.

Tacoma has it in acres — hundreds of acres, actually. Enough for up to three container dockyards. And that space is like gold when a boom in Asian trade is testing the capacity of every major port from Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C.

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“Of the acreage we have developed [for containers], we could at least double what we got,” Farrell said. “It’s a significant chunk of the [available] land on the West Coast.”

Tacoma is bracing for a major growth spurt this year, thanks in large part to the $210 million terminal that opened in December for Taiwan’s Evergreen Marine. The number of cargo containers is expected to jump 19 percent this year and 17 percent in 2006.

Evergreen’s relocation has allowed Tacoma to move other major shipping lines to larger terminals and to lure a new customer, Taiwan’s Yang Ming Marine.

Evergreen’s 171-acre terminal is the largest and most expensive in the port’s history, but it is not the last. Along the eastside of the Blair Waterway — on land now used for a wood-chip plant and a floating casino — the port is laying the groundwork for further expansion.

In 2003, the port bought 96 acres of nearby land from Kaiser Aluminum. Last year, it signed an economic development agreement with the Puyallup Tribal Council to move the Emerald Queen Casino and jointly develop the tribe’s waterfront property.

Seattle, which has expanded and modernized its three main cargo terminals in recent years, doesn’t have the same room to grow. With improvement in equipment and technology, Seattle estimates that its container docks could handle about 3 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) a year. TEUs are the standard measure for cargo containers.

With Evergreen’s new terminal, Tacoma figures it could move about 2.8 million TEUs. Additional terminals on the Blair Waterway would allow Tacoma to move even more.

Seattle and Tacoma are poised to snatch a greater share of the trade boom with Asia than almost anyone expected, even as recently as last year. A study commissioned by the Washington Public Ports Association predicted a moderate 4 percent growth in Puget Sound cargo.

Instead, by November, Seattle hit a record 1.6 million TEUs, nearly 17 percent more than 2003 with a month left to count. Tacoma volume remained relatively flat at about 1.6 million TEUs through November because it was already handling about as much as it could. That will change in 2005, thanks to the new 171-acre Evergreen terminal.

In fact, the entire Pacific Northwest has seen a remarkable turnaround in recent years, in part due to growing congestion at the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle about two-thirds of the cargo bound for the West Coast.

Shipping companies and major importers, such as Target, are increasingly looking to Seattle and Tacoma as alternative ports for their cargo. The attention has stoked the long-running competition between the two cities.

Seattle lost bragging rights as Puget Sound’s busiest container port in 2001, when Tacoma took the crown for the first time.

Competition between the ports took its toll on Seattle starting in the 1970s. Tacoma lured away some of the biggest shipping lines calling on Seattle — including Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Maersk Sealand, K-Line, Evergreen and Hyundai — by offering them their own terminals.

“When they started out, Seattle was everything and Tacoma was tide flats with a pulp mill and a junk yard,” said Alec Fisken, a Port of Seattle commissioner. “Then one by one, they picked off some of the big clients from Seattle.”

When it came time for Hanjin, one of Seattle biggest clients, to decide whether to extend its lease on Elliott Bay, some feared that the South Korean shipping giant might move to Tacoma. Instead, it signed an extension that could keep it here until 2025.

Farrell downplayed the historic rivalry between the ports, saying that the two cooperate on common issues such as security, roads, rail lines and regulatory policy. And, he said, consolidation among steamship lines means ports have less opportunity to lure new shippers.

Instead, he said, the key is convincing customers to move more cargo through the Pacific Northwest — an issue both ports can work on.

“The battle is for allocation of cargo with existing customers more than moving customers around,” Farrell said. “And that is where our interests are normally aligned.”

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or mmcomber@seattletimes.com