Two historic enemies recently achieved a remarkable détente. The agreement grabbed headlines, but for many, the topic was inherently a snoozer: an alliance between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. It might sound yawn-inducing, but it could be a harbinger of a major — and positive — shift in regional dynamics. In the new deal, the two ports will act cooperatively in competing and managing the movement of cargo in and out of the region.
The Puget Sound region was born in competition, with budding cities vying to dominate what people in the 19th century called a God-gifted landscape. Each settlement on the Sound wanted to be the premier city of an unmatched geographic location, a golden confluence of proximity to the Pacific, deep-water ports and an abundance of natural resources, including fish, timber and coal. The new cities went at it, hammer and tong.
Tacoma declared itself the “City of Destiny” and when the city outbid Seattle to be the terminus for the transcontinental railroad, one booster crowed: “Seattle, Seattle, Death Rattle, Death Rattle!” Seattle proclaimed itself “New York Alki,” meaning “New York Someday,” and its boosters in the late 1800s intended their town to be “the Queen City of the Pacific.”
Everett grabbed the not-so-tourist-friendly title of “City of Smokestacks” to suggest a nexus of industry. In more recent years, Bellevue has raised a phalanx of skyscrapers signaling that Seattle’s dominance ends at Lake Washington. In short, these neighbors have been competing with each other for more than a century and a half, no city quite willing to cede power, growth or moral authority to another.
There have been more recent, high-profile skirmishes, such as when Seattle lured the Russell Investment Group, Tacoma’s largest private downtown employer, to downtown Seattle in 2010. Or when the Port of Tacoma stole away a large shipping consortium — one of Seattle’s biggest port accounts — in 2012. Or when Weyerhaeuser announced last August that it was leaving Federal Way, having already vacated Tacoma, to relocate in Pioneer Square. Some Seattle urbanists took this as another sign of Seattle superiority. Meanwhile, Eastsiders often roll their eyes at Seattle’s inability to get things done, such as the west end of the State Route 520 corridor project. Seattle may have emerged as the big dog and major brand of the Puget Sound region, but the spirit of competition with the neighbors hasn’t gone away.
There have been efforts to forge regional cooperation. Sound Transit, for example, is a multi-county agency. The Puget Sound Regional Council attempts to set the development and policy agenda for the region. But on the ground, civic elbows continue to be thrown.
We need to be thinking and acting more regionally and less parochially. For one thing, as the region urbanizes and becomes denser, it should be easier for policy goals to align. When it comes to transportation and issues such as housing affordability, strictly local solutions don’t solve problems. As demand for Seattle real estate continues to be strong, building more affordable housing becomes more difficult. Could Seattle see its way toward sharing growth rather than grabbing at it? Could Seattle help other regional cities increase their market appeal? Could the central Puget Sound region accommodate growth without anyone hogging it?
In this historically contentious context, the new Seattle-Tacoma Seaport Alliance is intriguing. It offers a potential laboratory for two regional competitors to come together and operate for the common good. The alliance is not occurring because the two entities are suddenly best pals — they’re drawn together by common enemies. An expanded Panama Canal will redirect shipping — in so-called megaships that can’t yet be handled here — to other ports. British Columbia is beefing up its port facilities and transportation capabilities. According to a recent report, it’s now quicker to ship cargo by rail from British Columbia to the East Coast of the United States than via U.S. routes.
By working together, the ports eliminate a regional cargo competitor (each other) and can maximize their collective potential in the shipping business. Undercutting one another is now a cycle of diminishing returns. There’s a storm brewing, and cooperation offers a potential safe harbor.
The region faces other potential storms that will require a collective response. One is climate change, which, by the way, will directly impact port facilities. Projected estimates for rising sea levels made by Seattle Public Utilities and based on national figures, indicate, for example, that manmade Harbor Island and parts of the port and industrial properties along the Duwamish River are likely to be underwater during the 21st century.