For an hour on Tuesday, the commissions of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle began discussing publicly some of what they have been tackling privately during nine confidential meetings since May.
During a public meeting at the Port of Tacoma’s Fabulich Center, the commissions heard the results of an economic impact study that considered the maritime operations of both ports as one entity.
Together, they are responsible for some 18,000 jobs generated directly by seaport activity, $4 billion in business revenue and $378 million in state and local taxes, according to the analysis done by a Pennsylvania firm that was jointly commissioned by the ports.
“The world looks at both ports as operating a joint gateway for the Pacific Northwest,” said Chris Mefford of Community Attributes Inc., who presented the study results.
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Shake the Magic 8 Ball: All signs point to ... merger?
“It’s not a merger,” Port of Tacoma commission chairwoman Clare Petrich said Tuesday after the meeting. “It’s how we can work better together in light of the competitive issues that we are all facing.”
The study also showed that while the ports together have maintained a steady volume of container shipping since 2010, their overall market share has shrunk each year since. A separate analysis published in a trade magazine in June showed that the Port of Tacoma has increased market share while Seattle’s has shrunk. What, then, would Tacoma gain by operating more closely with Seattle?
Much of Tacoma’s increased market share is because Seattle’s customers came to Tacoma, Petrich said.
“It’s not a net gain,” she said. “It may benefit one port at the expense of the other port. When we look at it from a gateway perspective, we don’t want this gateway to be losing.”
The Pacific Northwest is facing heavy competition from Canada, as well as East and Gulf coast ports trying to take advantage of a wider Panama Canal to lure big containers ships that traditionally favor the West Coast's deep water ports.
During the public session, Seattle port commissioner Stephanie Bowman emphasized the sensitivity of the issues involved.
“We received permission from the Federal Maritime Commission to meet confidentially and discuss sensitive issues on competition. This is the first opportunity to discuss publicly what we’ve been discussing in those sessions,” she said.
The legality of the confidential sessions is in question.
The two ports have announced the dates and times of the joint sessions, so the meetings have not been secret. But they have been held behind closed doors, with port lawyers citing federal law they say trumps the state Open Public Meetings Act. That act requires the commissions to meet in public with limited exceptions. Those exceptions involve such issues as pending litigation, real estate transactions, national security matters and personnel issues.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle attorney with 17 years of experience in open government law, has said the ports and their legal counsel are simply wrong. An open-government advocate filed a lawsuit in King County on Monday, attempting to stop the commissions from having another confidential session, and port lawyers moved it to federal court hours later.
“This is a delaying tactic,” said Arthur West, an Olympia resident who often challenges government secrecy. “I don’t believe the court will have jurisdiction. I plan to ask for it to be sent back to the state court. This is completely an issue of state law.”
John Worthington, another open-government advocate, served copies of West’s lawsuit Tuesday morning on members of the Port of Seattle commission as they arrived for the ninth confidential session. A Port of Tacoma security officer then asked him to leave the building, which he did, with the officer escorting him.
Outside the Fabulich Center, Worthington said the ports were right to treat competitive issues with urgency.
“I have no problem with the ports trying to make things better,” he said. “They should discuss it in public. Tacoma and Seattle and all the other ports in Washington – they’re not going to compete with (the ports of) Long Beach and Vancouver by cooking up some secret sauce in a secret meeting. It’s going to take a huge statewide investment in infrastructure.”
On that point, the port commissioners heartily agree. During the public session Tuesday, port of Seattle commissioners echoed the statements Pierce County leaders have been saying for decades: The state Legislature needs to fund a transportation plan for the state that includes the connection of state routes 167 and 509 to Interstate 5 to make it easier for freight to be moved in and out of state.
“If we can provide a transportation system that will allow shippers to reliably and efficiently, there is less incentive for shippers to move through the canal,” said Port of Seattle commissioner Bill Bryant. “If we don’t get 167 and 509 done within 4 years – it’s not like we have 10 years to get this done. If we don’t get this done soon, it will be too late.”