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Seattle’s high land values mean that shipping in Seattle has to be subsidized. That creates the dilemma of where you get the money for all the capital improvements ports need. Particularly costly cities need to stay ahead of the competition by expensive upgrades for greater productivity on valuable land, but where is Seattle supposed to get that money, particularly with the Port of Seattle unpopular with the voters?
Indeed, when the Port sounded the alarm about how much the SoDo Arena and surrounding developments would cripple freight movement to the nearby piers, it was painfully apparent that the Port had few allies. City Hall was more worried about angering Sonics fans than losing one of its largest employment sectors. Labor and business groups were split. Even the Port, which has a big stake in tourism through the airport, had to be coy about its opposition to two new sports teams.
As things are going, we are about to “do a San Francisco,” kicking out the port to another city (Oakland, in the case of the Bay Area) because of land values and urban lifestyle pressures.
The best solution to this drift that I have heard comes from former Port CEO Dick Ford, who notes that most American ports are run by commissioners appointed by the governor. Why not do that here, with the protection of having such appointees subject to recall by King County voters? As it is, Ford says, the people you most want to be port commissioners are least likely to run, but some of them, if appointed like U.W. Regents, might agree.
This suggests that wasting the opportunity to appoint two high-quality instant incumbents now would be a crime. This is the way in which some persons of stature, particularly if there are two going in at once, could agree to rise to the pressing civic need. The job may lack staff and adequate pay, but it does have one distinct advantage, as described by commissioner Bill Bryant: “In what other job can you have a big impact on transportation, on jobs and on the environment simply by getting two others to agree with you? Sure beats trying to line up 150 legislators in Olympia!”
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