Port of Seattle Deserves More From Region

Seattle Times Editorial, September 29, 2013, Seattle Times

WHEN Seattle thinks of its economic self, it thinks of Amazon.com and Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft. It thinks biotech, and maybe designer chocolate and craft beer.

Probably it does not think of a rail yard, container terminal, factory trawler or dry dock, and if it does, the usual assumption is that this is old industry, in decline.

But it is not, if people care about it.

“Seattle has the largest and strongest maritime cluster on the West Coast,” said a University of Washington report a decade ago, focusing on the jobs in the Asia trade, Alaska supply, shipbuilding, fishing and myriad support jobs. These jobs are still here, and typically they pay well.

In other cities, these things get respect. Tacoma, for example, takes care of its port. Seattle is not so diligent.

Exhibit No. 1 is the proposed NBA arena, which was to be slid between the Seattle’s Terminal 30 container yard and the main line of the BNSF Railway. When promoter Chris Hansen approached Mayor Mike McGinn for secret negotiations, no one thought to bring in the Port. Later the city and county presented a deal that pooh-poohed the Port’s objection that expanding the stadium district will conflict with the movement of freight off the docks.

Probably the Port’s worry could be mitigated by building more freeway ramps. It has learned not to expect them. When Safeco Field was built, the Port was promised an overpass over the BNSF tracks at South Lander Street, but the city spent it in South Lake Union.

Exhibit No. 2 of Seattle’s neglect is the downtown tunnel. The Port was stuck with 10 percent of the cost, which it will pass on to King County property owners. The use of the Port’s credit lowers its ability to pay for things central to its mission.

Exhibit No. 3 is the race for mayor of Seattle. The health of the Port and of the maritime-industrial lands should be a big issue and it hasn’t been, says Port Commissioner Courtney Gregoire, the former governor’s daughter, who is running for her first full term.

Gregoire who has visited ports all over America as the Obama administration head of export promotion says, “Our port doesn’t have the broad public support that I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.”

It should have that support. Seattle’s port brings good jobs: 21,695 directly and more indirectly. And it faces new challenges and risks from fast-moving rivals in Canada and in the East. In the ocean-container game, the Port will have to play hard in a contest in which others have failed.

“We don’t want to become a pretty San Francisco,” Gregoire says.

Seattle has some big things to do to avoid such a fate and to keep creating good jobs. On this page The Times begins a conversation.

Roads, rail important factors in Port’s progress

The Port of Seattle needs investment in road and rail connections if it is to continue to prosper.

AS an international seaport, Seattle has an interest in road and rail connections. Political leaders know this and have taken advantage of it — in recent years, too much advantage.

“In the eight years, I’ve been on the commission, I’ve voted for $365 million in road projects,” says Port of Seattle commissioner John Creighton, who is running for re-election. “We’re not a roads agency. But without these projects going forward it affects our competitiveness.”

The Port needs to cooperate with other jurisdictions, but its mission and the money to support it needs to be respected.

Of the $365 million, the downtown tunnel swallowed up $300 million. Debt service on that will be billed to the people of King County on the port-property tax, which is not the usual way or the best way to pay for roads.

The Port will get a benefit from the tunnel, especially compared with the no-tunnel “surface-transit option” Mayor Mike McGinn wanted. McGinn is running for re-election. But the tunnel is a state highway open to all, and state highways are supposed to be funded by the gas tax.

The state has squeezed the port because it is a way to get things done. Legislators are working on another tax package to be offered to statewide voters next year and they are counting on port contributions to some of the projects in it.

Again, the ports will get some benefit. In the House version of that package, says Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chair of the Transportation Committee, about one-fifth of the money is to finish the work on state highways 509 and 167, the top priorities for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, respectively.

“I’m not sure this is a good time to disengage our partnership,” she says.

Probably not. Both projects are needed to keep cargo moving. But going forward, the state will have to squeeze the ports less and contribute more, because the ports will need their credit capacity. The state will have to pay the freight on many smaller projects such as truck routes and grade separations where roads cross rail.

One such place is in Seattle’s Sodo District, which has level crossings at Holgate and Lander streets. When the city built the Mariners’ baseball stadium, Sodo was promised an overpass at Lander Street, but the city used the money instead for the Mercer Street project, which benefited Paul Allen, Amazon.com and other technology companies.

That the city takes an interest in technology companies is good. They are Seattle’s future — part of it. The city also has an industrial and maritime future, and the people should not forget that.

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