Citizens address the proposed alliance between Tacoma and Seattle ports

CR Roberts, May 22, 2015, The News Tribune

The people of Pierce County on Thursday evening had a chance to address elected commissioners concerning a proposed business plan that would join the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle in an unprecedented marriage of shipping markets.


Some two dozen people attended the meeting held at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood. Four Port of Tacoma commissioners and CEO John Wolfe spoke, as did one Port of Seattle commissioner who was present by phone.


Tacoma Port Commission chairman Don Johnson opened the agenda by outlining the proposed Northwest Seaport Alliance.


“It’s important to know why we’re doing this,” he said.


Competition is growing, he said, as Canadian ports expand, as the Panama Canal expands, as shippers transport containers in volumes larger than either Tacoma or Seattle can currently accommodate.


“Our industry has changed substantially,” he said. “You have to make the decision if you want to be in the ballgame.”


The Puget Sound ports risk losing market share to other ports, he said. “We need to get that back.”


The proposal would join shipping operations under one authority that would manage a set of terminals and piers located at both ports, and both ports would contribute to the expansion.


Major decisions would require the majority agreement of both port commissions, and the two home ports would maintain ownership of all resources.


Wolfe echoed Johnson by noting that the alliance would be the third largest container gateway in the U.S., and that “We’ve been losing market share. It’s important, as the most trade-dependent state, that we maintain our position and grow.”


Industry reaction to the proposal has been positive, Wolfe told the audience.


“Terminals, cargo lines, trucking companies, labor, railroads, all are coming together,” he said.


Each port, he said, would make an equal contribution to future investments, and each would earn an equal share of profits.


The reaction was typically positive among the six people who commented.


Responding to a comment concerning decades of competition between the two Puget Sound ports and to a question about which port would get the first benefits of investments, Tacoma Commissioner Connie Bacon said, “There is no first. There is only the gateway. It isn’t Seattle gets or Tacoma gets. We both get. Picture it in your mind: one gateway.”


”Is there an escape clause?” asked one audience member.


There is a 20-year term to the agreement, Johnson said. If there is a major disagreement, an arbiter will mediate. Or, if the marriage fails completely, both sides can agree to return to their own paths.


Another commenter wondered why the Port of Tacoma hadn’t sought the cruise business that Seattle enjoys, and he noted there were “some things” that might not have been addressed yet. Among those, he said, is the decline of container business in Seattle.


“That’s why they want this alliance,” he said.


Johnson responded, “We either modernize or we slowly go out of business.”


Tacoma Commissioner Claire Petrich noted that all details concerning the proposed alliance were available at the Port of Tacoma website.


One questioner asked about possible liabilities to Pierce County taxpayers.


“This is not a taxpayer issue,” Johnson said. “I don’t see taxpayers being touched at all by this project.”


Said Wolfe in conclusion, “This industry has never been easy, right?”


Following the meeting, one of the questioners, Joe Zawacki, said, “I’m conflicted. I recognize the economic importance of the pact. What I’m confused about is the potential for a change to Commencement Bay.”


Another speaker, Jack Woods of Tacoma, a retired Port of Tacoma business development official, said, “I think it needs more study.”


Wolfe commented, “It’s going as I expected. There’s support. There’s good questions.”


The two port commissions will meet jointly June 5 at Auburn City Hall to vote on sending the finished proposal to the Federal Maritime Commission for approval. Should the proposal be approved after an estimated 45 days, the commissions will vote whether to seal the deal, which has been more than a year in the making.


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