There is more to the Port of Seattle than tugboat races. This year, the Port's combined operating and capital budgets exceed $1 billion...

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There is more to the Port of Seattle than tugboat races. This year, the Port’s combined operating and capital budgets exceed $1 billion. The agency taxes all King County property owners and has direct impacts on jobs, traffic congestion, air and water quality. With so much influence, it is hard to understand why it receives so little public scrutiny.

Recent controversies surrounding efforts to convert some of Seattle’s last remaining working waterfront at North Bay to residential and biotech development and what to do with the waterfront trolley maintenance barn have served to elevate the Port’s public profile. It is unfortunate that the public primarily hears about the Port at such times, but then again, this is an entity that holds its annual budget meeting the week of Thanksgiving, when many are traveling.

This year offers an opportunity for a change in the way the Port is operated, with the departure of former Port watcher turned commissioner, Paige Miller, to run for City Council. It will be interesting to hear how the candidates and incumbents, Pat Davis and Lawrence Malloy, are proposing to address the Port’s future.

While the Port’s finances have responded positively to improvements in the global economy, the following examples underscore the need for new leadership and direction.

The Washington Public Ports Association projects a tripling of maritime growth in Washington over the next 20 years. Since the Shoreline Management Act restricts shoreline development to water-dependent uses, why would the Port choose to further compete against Paul Allen’s company, Vulcan, for biotech business within Seattle’s city limits when industrially zoned waterfront property is at a premium?

The Port’s decision to compete with Vulcan, rather than develop North Bay for cruise-ship use, as was originally planned until realizing it had to complete an environmental-impact statement, mirrors its attitude toward other ports in the state. The uncoordinated development of isolated “fiefdoms” undermines the Port’s ability to serve the broadest public interest.

Rather than mourning the loss of the Port of Seattle’s No. 1 shipping-container status to Tacoma, we should be evaluating how each of our region’s ports is poised to take advantage of its natural and built assets and allocate growth accordingly. This way, we can better mitigate the indirect impacts of such growth on regional traffic congestion and the environment.

The Port of Tacoma’s larger land base enables it to handle more containers than Seattle, but that does not mean that both ports can’t prosper. By cooperating with our natural partner in Pierce County, we have the ability to avoid the prospect of choking on our own success, especially while Seattle improves its transportation infrastructure. Rather than just competing for containers or converting its land to non-maritime uses, the Port can use spaces such as North Bay to serve the burgeoning cruise-ship, fisheries and construction industries in Alaska.

Misguided competition also has unanticipated environmental consequences.

In 1998, the Port of Olympia attempted to get into the container business by attracting Sunmar Container Lines away from the Port of Seattle into the southern-most reaches of Puget Sound, where the U.S. Coast Guard’s vessel-traffic radar did not extend at the time. This lasted for one year, but not before a ship grounded on Anderson Island.

The lack of a bilateral agreement with the Port of Vancouver, B.C., has resulted in years of excuses for why we cannot advance maritime transportation safety measures in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Without an agreement that levels the regulatory ballfield between our two countries, any new U.S. or Washington regulations are seen as simply driving business north. As a result, taxpayers, with no help from the maritime industry, are underwriting the cost of the Neah Bay rescue tug.

In contrast, Don Fast, Environment Canada’s regional director, said at the recent Puget Sound/Georgia Basin Research Conference in Seattle, “You have to know who your friends are in order to cooperate while being globally competitive.”

Instead of cooperating with other ports and preserving our region’s unique maritime assets, the Port seems willing to let short-term financial goals dictate long-term land-use decisions while at the same time opposing environmental safeguards for fear they will send its customers sailing off to bluer terminals.

By allowing our ports to operate in isolation, we fail to acknowledge and accommodate the cumulative benefits and impacts they bring. The Port has avoided its obligation as a public taxing authority to help mitigate its contribution to the risk of oil spills, sewage discharges and invasive species.

The Port has legal obligations under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), but it also has the opportunity to use its lease agreements with shipping companies to achieve public benefits beyond those required by law or regulation.

SEPA, not some voluntary initiative, provided the impetus to electrify the Princess berth at Terminal 30, sparing us the idling of the Princess’ generators that would have produced pollution equivalent to 25,000 cars per visit this cruise season.

Unfortunately, instead of using its lease agreement to ask cruise ships to make discharge reports (as they do by law in Alaska), the Port opted to lobby for an inadequate and non-binding memorandum of understanding.

The Port can also provide positive incentives for shippers to bring their best ships to Seattle by adopting the Green Award Foundation certification. Founded in Rotterdam in 1994, the Green Award Foundation is a nonprofit organization promoting clean and safe shipping by certifying ships as meeting high operational standards for 45 ports in seven countries.

Certified vessels enjoy up to a 6-percent reduction in their port fees and ship owners often experience lower insurance premiums, while the port improves safety.

Fortunately, the City Council struck down the Port’s misguided efforts at North Bay. However, with so much at stake in the region, it is hoped that the media will continue to pay attention to Port business and the public will give this year’s Port election the level of attention it deserves.

Fred Felleman is a marine biologist and photographer who tracks NW maritime activities as Northwest Director of Ocean Advocates. E-mail him at