International container volume at the Northwest Seaport Alliance of Seattle and Tacoma surged 25 percent in January compared to the same month last year, beginning what port officials say should be a strong year for container traffic.

International imports increased 33 percent and exports were up 16 percent year-over-year, according to numbers posted on the Northwest Alliance website. The domestic container trade, however, was down 13 percent. Shipments to Alaska are expected to remain weak due to declining oil prices. Also, Hawaiian cargo was lost last year when Horizon Line was sold to Pasha Group, which consolidated operations in Southern California.

Port officials anticipate a much better year than 2015, certainly in the first two months of 2016. Last year at this time, all West Coast ports were struggling with severe congestion associated with negotiations for the coastwide longshore contract. Seattle-Tacoma in January 2015 handled 220,843 twenty-foot-equivalent units, and in February the port complex handled 222,009 TEUs.

A tentative contract was reached on February 20, and container volume in March jumped to 356,571 TEUs, the highest monthly volume of the year, as vessels that had been stuck at anchor were able to proceed to berth, and crane productivity returned to normal.

Container traffic in February should also increase compared to February 2015. The March numbers will likely be down, given the cargo surge last March. Container traffic should then resume steady growth as the trans-Pacific trade moves into the busy summer-fall peak-shipping season.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma last year formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance to improve their competitiveness. The Puget Sound ports will rationalize their investments and avoid duplication of facilities to better handle the mega-ships that now dominate the trans-Pacific trade. The Northwest Seaport Alliance is the third largest U.S. container gateway after Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey.