Steve Wilhelm, October 10, 2014, Puget Sound Business Journal
Here’s a little-known condition of Puget Sound ports: Their governance is unlike most other ports in the United States, which often are run by cities, by states, or even by pairs of states.
This is a key reason why the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are trying to create the Seaport Alliance, a way to put the state’s two largest container operations under one entity while remaining within the bounds of state law.
Washingtonians are used to port commission races where voters choose five port commissioners from a slate of little-known candidates. Often those jobs become a stepping stone to higher office.
The region’s homeowners are also used to looking at their property tax bills and seeing the ports of Seattle and Tacoma taking their cut to pay for the container terminals and cranes.
“It’s not the norm to have elected commission who levy taxes,” said Rex Sherman, research director for the American Association of Port Authorities. “The Pacific Northwest, it’s rather unique.”
Washington ports are regulated by the Washington State Port District Act of 1911, which was passed partly in reaction to railroads’ dominance of the Seattle waterfront.
The result is a complex network of elected commissions and taxing districts – 75 of them across the state – with many ports far from any waters deep enough to handle a cargo ship.
This odd system is one thing the region is up against as its two largest ports join forces. The structure could hamper Puget Sound ports’ ability to collaborate under the Seaport Alliance structure.
“When you have a governing body whose jurisdiction is geographically narrow, managing a port whose business is national, it’s a difficult tension to effectively address,” said Jim Brennan, a maritime analyst and partner at Norbridge Inc., in Concord, Mass.
The budgets of the competing ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are subsets of huge city budgets, so while those have their political realities, they’re not restricted to self-subsistence as Puget Sound ports.
To the north, Port Metro Vancouver is run by the Canadian government, and seen as a national resource.
Meanwhile, across the country, big ports are pouring money into infrastructure, trying to undermine West Coast ports’ historic dominance of imports from Asia.
This means in a sense that the taxpayers of the Port of Seattle, which has the same boundaries as King County, are up against some very deep pockets.
The Virginia Port Authority is a division of that state’s Department of Transportation, and South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia all use state-run port authorities.
Bi-state port authorities include the port Authority of New York and New Jersey, while big cities like Houston, Jacksonville, Galveston all run their own port authorities.