Port of Seattle prepares for stormy sailing in 25-year plan
Port of Seattle adopts blueprint that calls for adding 100,000 related jobs, increasing air traffic in next 25 years.
Special to The Seattle Times
After four years of discussions with experts, citizens, businesses, unions and environmentalists, commissioners of the Port of Seattle this past week approved the final draft of the Century Agenda.
As the Port marks its hundredth year, this represents a blueprint for the next 25 years for both the airport and seaport. Ambitious, yes. Realistic and measurable, too. Among the goals:
• Add 100,000 Port-related jobs for a total of 300,000.
• Increase container volume to more than 3.5 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, the common industry measure).
• Triple air cargo to more than 750,000 metric tons.
• Double the value of the fishing and maritime cluster.
• Double the number of international flights and destinations.
• Be the greenest and most energy-efficient port in North America.
One might be tempted to say some of the goals are not ambitious enough. After all, we're talking about 25 years.
But I give the commission credit for realizing the discontinuity that is upon us: The next 25 years won't be a repeat of the past quarter-century.
The seaport faces new competition from Canada, Mexico and a wider Panama Canal. Higher energy costs could further change trade patterns.
Many Americans, frustrated with losses to the present trade paradigm, would even welcome protectionist measures. Similarly, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will contend with competitive challenges and airlines wrestling with fuel expenses.
And that doesn't even account for the unknowns on a planet seeing the costs and destabilization of high population, climate change, economic trouble and geopolitical dangers.
"We are cast about on a sea of uncertainty," said Commissioner Tom Albro, who co-chaired the agenda with Commissioner John Creighton.
"We have to leverage our strengths. We're well positioned geographically, with a rail network, growing air-cargo capacity, I-90 and I-5. We have an educated work force and strong manufacturing sector. ... We will find opportunity through time to grow access to global markets."
One of the more intriguing elements of the agenda concerns the fishing and maritime industry, which is a shade of the powerhouse it was half a century ago.
Albro said the Port hopes to retain and grow what remains.
Even as oceans worldwide face a crisis, the Northwest offers one of the better-managed fisheries. Overfishing, pollution and species die-offs because of climate change might make it more valuable. Albro would also like to see Seattle get a big chunk of new-vessel construction, making use of research at the University of Washington and what Boeing subcontractors have learned about composites.
As with all reports, the goal is to make sure this one doesn't land on a shelf to gather dust. The Port can be partly held accountable for whether it does or not.
For example, aggressive economic development can indeed focus industrial land use there to prevent sprawl.
I also think environmental costs worldwide will indeed add tangible value to a port that can really be "the greenest," provided that's not just a marketing slogan.
But the larger opportunity with the Century Agenda, and one reason Port officials spent so long listening to its stakeholders, can only be realized if many other businesses, governmental units and institutions join in.
This won't always be easy. Does a Port-related business have control over meeting goals to reduce stormwater? Will achieving them raise costs so much that it sends companies out onto the less-regulated fringes?
Can governmental entities jealous of their prerogatives work together in an era where world competition is among metropolitan areas, not jurisdictions?
"We can be our own worst enemies," Albro said. "It's been a long time since we've exercised the muscle (of) what we can do together and create economic opportunity."
He's right. While Seattle has been innovative and lucky, it's also built on foundations — from the ship canal to the UW — that were wildly ambitious for an isolated town of modest size.
If we fail to make the long-term investments this time, he said, we won't position ourselves "for the next wave of (private) investment and commerce."
One model he points to is Chicago's CREATE program, a public-private partnership that is investing billions to enhance the Windy City's freight, and passenger-rail and logistics dominance. If that comes at the expense of other rail centers, shame on them. It may be that in a slow-growth world, the losers outnumber the winners.
Seattle and the Puget Sound rode the growth wave with remarkable results. Now comes the hard part.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jontalton.
This story was originally published Jan. 14, 2012, and corrected Jan. 20, 2012. A chart showing traffic trends that ran with the original story mislabed the bars denoting tonnage and container volume. A corrected PDF appears with the current story.
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest