Peter Callaghan: Has Our Port vs. Port Sibling Rivalry Gone Stale?

By Peter Callaghan, October 13, 2013, The News Tribune

It’s one of the fundamental “he said/she said” debates in Puget Sound politics.

The Port of Seattle says the Port of Tacoma is able to take shipping lines away by undercutting lease rates, by “giving it away.”

In an article Tuesday in The Seattle Times, Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant put the price tag for the latest interplay at $125 million. That, he said, is the cost to the region because Tacoma snagged the coalition of shipping lines known as the Grand Alliance and Seattle had to renegotiate its lease to keep Hanjin Shipping Co. from doing the same.

“They don’t have unlimited funds. Neither of us have unlimited funds,” Bryant said of the two public ports. “We can’t keep doing this.”

In turn, the Port of Tacoma says Seattle is guilty of sour grapes, that Tacoma wins shipping line after shipping line because of its superior service, lean operations and available land.

“The Grand Alliance is making us and you a lot of money,” Tacoma Commissioner Connie Bacon said during her mini-debate with challenger Eric Holdeman. “We make money from each can (container). It’s not true that we gave it away or we wouldn’t have done it.”

Versions of this exchange follow each announcement that Tacoma has captured another shipping line. Seattle port officials say Tacoma undercuts the rates and rentals charged for using public land and that allowing the private shipping lines to play the two governments off against each other brings no new jobs, no new economic activity to the region.

Tacoma port officials say competition between the two is healthy, that it keeps both ports on their toes.

It’s also an issue in port races in both counties. Seattle candidates say the port needs to do more to get Tacoma to the bargaining table. Holdeman says the two tax-supported entities should compete with rivals in Canada, California and Mexico and not each other.

“To win it, we gave it away,” Holdeman said of the Grand Alliance contract. “We gave a price they could not refuse.”

So who is right? Who knows.

The public lacks the data to make a judgment. Governors, legislators and members of the congressional delegation have avoided this particular mud wrestling match.

Besides, when shipping was on the increase and both ports were growing, it didn’t much matter. Seattle could take advantage of its global brand and bring new shipping lines into Puget Sound, Tacoma could pluck the biggest prizes away, and Seattle could go back out and replace them.

Tacoma, meanwhile, could act out the psychological trauma of being the abused second city by “winning” competitions with Seattle. And Seattle could make each victory more delicious by whining about it.

But changes in the shipping business mean this particular sibling rivalry will begin costing the region economically. At some point, the adults need to come in and settle it.

Ports in Canada and Mexico are using massive government investments to take traffic away from American ports. Port officials also worry about a larger and wider Panama Canal making East Coast ports an economical alternative to California and Washington.

How can Tacoma and Seattle make the investments needed when they keep making sweetheart deals? How can they ask for cash from the state and feds for transportation infrastructure when they can’t resolve their intramural fighting?

Gov. Jay Inslee might be one person senior enough to change the dynamic. Perhaps former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who could always be counted upon to be the Port of Tacoma’s biggest supporter/enabler while in Congress, has the standing to pressure Tacoma to the table.

But first we need real information. The state should order an audit conducted by people with the expertise to determine whether Tacoma’s rates are competitive or just predatory.

Knowing how much money is being left on the bargaining table, money that could be used to make the dockside and transportation improvements needed, could be the club needed to demand and enforce actual cooperation between Tacoma and Seattle.

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