Support Crosscut

Remove roadblocks to the port’s mission of moving cargo and people

The mix of truck, rail, and other traffic in SoDo has become an issue in discussion of a proposed sports arena. Credit: Joey Shevelson/Flickr

In the wake of the Seattle Port Commission expressing our concerns over the recent basketball arena proposal, I have heard a number of comments to the effect that the Port of Seattle can’t decide if it wants an industrial waterfront or a gentrified waterfront; that, in fact, the Port has been an agent in creating our own slippery slope away from Seattle’s industrial past. This view is typified by Knute Berger’s  recent piece in Crosscut.

In the 1990s, many factors were acting to change and dislocate traditional industries, and port leaders worked to fight those changes where they could and adjust to them when they had to. But I believe that the complexity of the port and the regional economy, and the overall mission of the Port in moving both cargo and people, gets lost when port actions are classified as either/or — either the port supports industry or the port promotes gentrification.

I should say upfront that no one at the Port has come out opposed to an NBA arena. I myself remember rushing home from my Seattle Times paper route to catch the SuperSonics during their 1979 championship run. We all are excited at the prospect of bringing the Sonics back to Seattle.

But we also need to recognize that over the last two decades the state of Washington, the Port, King County, the City of Seattle, and other public and private interests have together invested over $1 billion in the infrastructure that supports industrial activities on our South Seattle and Harbor Island waterfront. We shouldn’t be pursuing policies that risk endangering that investment. A recent Seattle Times article details how the Port’s marine cargo operations generate more than $3 billion in business revenue, state and local taxes, and about 56,000 related jobs. Moreover, what happens in SODO not only impacts logistics and industrial businesses that account for 35 percent of the City of Seattle’s tax base, it also impacts businesses and jobs across the entire state.

Placing a basketball arena in the path of a freight corridor of critical importance to the economic well-being of the entire state in our view needs to be carefully considered. That is why the Manufacturing Industrial Council (MIC), the Washington State Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board (FMSIB), the Burlington Northern Railway (BNSF), and others have all expressed concerns over the arena proposal.

The Port of Seattle is an industrial port with a long heritage as an industrial port. Those operations create very good-paying blue collar jobs that add to the strength and diversity of the Puget Sound economy. I and my colleagues on the Port Commission remain committed to sustaining a vibrant industrial port.

Over the last several decades, pundits have periodically sounded the death knell of the maritime and industrial sectors in Seattle. Yet they have been proved wrong every time.  A good example is Fisherman’s Terminal.

In the '90s, many people thought the fishing industry was declining. It wasn’t. It was just going through a transition similar to many other sectors: the old model of “mom and pop” operations — families owning a single fishing boat — was giving way to corporations owning a fleet of several fishing trawlers each.

Since that time, the Port of Seattle has actually seen a renaissance at Fisherman’s Terminal.

During this time of transition, many West Coast fishing ports closed down. The Port of Seattle bucked the trend by investing in modernizing Fisherman’s Terminal. This and prior port commissions have approved over $60 million in modernization projects and improvements at Fisherman’s Terminal, from swapping out the old wood docks for sturdier, safer concrete docks and upgrading utilities, to replacing seawalls. At the same time, the North Pacific fisheries have been strengthened through sustainable fishing policies. Slips at Fisherman’s Terminal are again home to the majority of the North Pacific fishing fleet. In fact, one of the Port Commission’s 25-year goals is to build on this success and double the economic impact to the region of our fishing and maritime cluster.

The Port is in the business of moving people as well as cargo. In 2011, 32.8 million passengers traveled through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an all-time record. Last year, 885,949 passengers left from Port of Seattle cruise terminals on cruises to Alaska.

Every time a cruise ship leaves from our port, it brings in $2.1 million into our local economy in the form of food, beverages, cut flowers, and other shipboard provisions, as well as dollars spent in hotels and restaurants across the region by cruise passengers pre- or post-trip.

Travel and tourism is a $16 billion a year industry for the State of Washington, an extremely important sector to our economy. To the region’s benefit, port commissioners invested in projects that supported both traditional industrial and tourism terminals. It’s inaccurate to state well after the fact that previous commissioners, who recognized that we have a multifaceted port with complex interests and operations, were not committed to our industrial past.

We can have both a beautiful Central Waterfront in Seattle attracting sightseers, diners, and pedestrians and vibrant industrial operations to the north and the south.

The trick is maintaining efficient freight corridors. When Safeco Field and then Century Link stadium were built, everyone agreed that transportation issues had to be addressed, and three east-west corridors were planned — corridors that would have made moving goods and people more efficient in SoDo. Today, only two of the three planned projects have been built, and one of those was reduced dramatically. We need to fund and move ahead with the remaining project, a freight overpass at Lander Street. And we should look at what further transportation investments are needed as economic activity in SODO continues to grow.

We cannot risk endangering maritime and industrial activities that add to the economic strength of our region by generating more than $3 billion in business revenue, state and local taxes, and over 56,000 related jobs.

Support Crosscut