Skip to main content

Originally published September 28, 2013 at 4:07 PM | Page modified October 1, 2013 at 11:39 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments ((0))
  • Print

Editorial: Preparing Port of Seattle for the future

For too long, Seattle has taken for granted the needs of the Port of Seattle and the maritime and trade industries it supports. That needs to change if Seattle is to continue to be the port center it has been for more than a century.

Port of Seattle deserves more from region

WHEN Seattle thinks of its economic self, it thinks of 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, 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.

Cleaning the Duwamish to a reasonable standard

THE cleanup of the lower Duwamish River sediments, now under way, must be to a standard the people doing the work know they can achieve and sustain.

This issue is part of The Times’ editorial focus on the Port of Seattle not only because the Port is a participant. The whole Duwamish industrial area depends on the movement of goods, which involves the Port, and hundreds of landowners will be expected to pay for cleaning up the river.

The process has to work, because Seattle relies on its maritime and industrial lands for one-third of its business gross-revenue-tax and sales-tax revenue.

Before cleanup began, sediment in the final five miles of the Duwamish averaged 350 parts per billion of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). At that level, eating perch, flounder, sole, rockfish, crab, mussels or clams raises the risk of liver cancer.

Warnings are posted not to eat these fish, though some people, many of them residents of Georgetown or South Park or tribal members, still catch and eat them.

The city of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle and Boeing all own land there and are on the hook to pay for cleanup. They have proposed a cleanup standard of 30 parts per billion. Citing the state’s Model Toxics Control Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a much tougher standard of 2 parts per billion.

Currently, reaching 2 parts per billion is impossible, and EPA’s own proposal of work will not reach it. Two parts per billion is the cleanliness of sand in rural bays of Puget Sound. No work in the lower Duwamish alone can get the river bottom so clean, because sediments washing in from upriver range from 3 to 80 parts per billion of PCBs.

The EPA says upriver cleanup could lower the toxicity of sediments flowing downriver, and that 2 parts per billion might ultimately be possible. EPA’s worry is that if it relaxes the standard now, the possibility of a 99 percent clean river will be lost.

The worry among local jurisdictions is that if they commit to 2 parts per billion, which they cannot attain in this plan alone, they will be out of compliance. They will be sued by environmental groups and tribes, and they will lose. Also, hundreds of other industrial landowners are liable to share the cleanup cost.

Cleanup will go much faster if these owners agree to pay; but if the standard is impossible these owners will sue instead, delaying the cleanup. In that scenario, some industrial tenants will simply flee, taking jobs and tax revenue with them.

The EPA says, in essence, trust us. “Nobody is going to implement a water-quality standard in a way that shuts down the ability of business to go forward,” says EPA’s Region 10 administrator, Dennis McLerran.

The sentiment is right, but the people on the hook are not reassured.

Note that the dispute is mostly not about the work being proposed now. EPA’s plan of work would remove enough mud to fill the 76-story Columbia Center and ship it to disposal sites east of the Cascades.

The local plan would dredge four-fifths of that amount and use more in-river treatment. EPA’s plan costs $305 million and the local plan costs $285 million — a difference of 7 percent. On their own, each plan would eventually reach the same level of cleanliness.

The dispute is about the point at which legal liability ends. “We want to know that when we’re done, we’re done,” says Christie True, director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks. It is also about what is realistic. “We have to be honest with people with what we can accomplish,” True says. “This is their money, the ratepayers’ money.”

This is the more reasonable approach. The lower Duwamish has been an industrial river for 100 years. Set the goal for the final five miles at a doable 30 parts per billion, which amounts to a 91 percent cleanup, and get it done.

Lewis, Gregoire, Bowman and Albro for Port of Seattle commission

THE Port of Seattle is under threat from competitors in British Columbia and because of the widening of the Panama Canal in 2015, East Coast ports as well

The five commissioners will choose a chief executive officer to replace Tay Yoshitani, who plans to retire next year.

Who is at the helm of the Port matters more than ever.

For position 1, Pete Lewis, who is challenging incumbent Port of Seattle Commissioner John Creighton, earns our vigorous endorsement for reasons of decorum and ethical leadership.

Pete Lewis is mayor and city manager of Auburn. He’s solid. He knows the subject of freight mobility and transportation. He knows his way around state and local government and how things get done. His ideas on Port policy are not much different from Creighton’s, whose ideas on Port policy were never the problem. Temperament is the issue, and Lewis is calm.

Creighton is notoriously uncivil to people who disagree with him, whether they be his fellow commissioners, Port employees or people in politics.

When Creighton was running for his second four-year term in 2009, a woman accused him of harassing her online. He admitted through his attorney (and he is an attorney himself) that there had been “regrettable written and verbal communications between two adults that while hurtful were never intended to harass.” The Times obtained copies of Creighton’s emails, which our reviewer found unquestionably harassing, with a taunting quality to them.

This is not the behavior that should be expected of a public official. Furthermore, he has subjected others to similar behavior.

Four years ago the incident with the woman — whom he paid $5,000 — might have cost him his re-election, except that he didn’t have an opponent. Now he has one.

For position 2, the obvious choice is incumbent Courtney Gregoire. She was director of President Obama’s National Export Initiative at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., and is now an attorney at Microsoft.

She was appointed to the Port commission earlier this year by the existing commissioners to fill a vacant seat, beating out other applicants. Already, the former governor’s daughter is rated “outstanding” by the Municipal League of King County. And besides, her opponent, factory worker John Naubert, is a self-described communist more laser focused on labor issues than the Port’s broader issues.

For position 3, incumbent Stephanie Bowman, executive director of the Washington Asset Building Coalition, a social agency, was appointed to the Port commission in the same competitive process as Gregoire. She has a firm grasp of Port issues and Michael Wolfe, the sales manager of a cellphone-app company and a Democratic Party activist, has not made the case to replace her. Stick with Bowman.

For position 4, the easy choice is entrepreneur Tom Albro, the Port Commission’s president. Albro has a strong civic sensibility and represents the public well. He is also rated “outstanding” by the Muni League, though it is an organization he used to lead.

His opponent, Richard Pope, is a perennial candidate running on the perennial idea of ending the Port’s property tax. These days the tax is used mostly for transportation projects — chiefly the Port’s share of the downtown Seattle tunnel — and environmental cleanup. Neither of those can be canceled and neither can the tax, which Albro understands and Pope does not.

No comments have been posted to this article.

Relive the magic

Relive the magic

Shop for unique souvenirs highlighting great sports moments in Seattle history.