Port of Tacoma

Tacoma, Seattle port commissions vote to support Seaport Alliance

Two rival ports, Tacoma and Seattle, Tuesday officially declared an intent to end their destructive competition over maritime customers.

In a historic joint session in Auburn the two ruling port commissions each voted unanimously to ask the Federal Maritime Commission to grant them permission to operate their waterfront terminals jointly.

The two bodies had announced their intent to form an operating alliance last week. Tuesday’s vote made it official.

Now their petition to do so moves to the FMC for 45 days of consideration and comment. Once the federal body approves, the two ports plan to spend the next five months working out the details of the working agreement before returning to the FMC for final approval.

The two commissions spent some 90 minutes praising one another for the spirit of cooperation shown in several months of confidential talks that led to Tuesday’s vote.

“This is a historic day,” said Stephanie Bowman, Port of Seattle Commission co-president. “This is a bold move by both ports.”

“This is the right place to begin the next step together,” said Port of Tacoma Commission President Clare Petrich. The two commissions first met together for the first time in Auburn City Hall in 2008.

After a procession of civic and labor leaders testified in favor of the alliance, the two commission leaders took turns reading endorsements from political and economic development officials congratulating the ports on their decision to join together their maritime operations.

Two commissioners used articles of clothing to make points about the alliance.

Seattle Commissioner Tom Albro noted that he was wearing his blue and green Seahawks tie. Just as the football team must do after a Sunday loss to the Dallas Cowboys, so too must the two ports, “adjust our game plans” to win new jobs and business in an environment made more difficult by shipping line alliances, new competitive pressure from Canadian ports and rail congestion issues, he said.

Petrich noted that she was wearing a decorative pin depicting a Salish frog. That frog, she said, in tribal tradition, represents wealth and abundance, something the new alliance will yield if properly executed.

The alliance arrangements stop short of a full merger. The terminals and other assets involved will remain the property of the two ports, and operations outside the maritime cargo business will remain the exclusive domain of each commission. In the case of Seattle, it will independently govern Sea-Tac Airport, its cruise ship and fishing industry business, its real estate operations and its marinas. In the case of Tacoma, which has a narrower focus, the port will continue to manage its own property leasing and development operations.

Even ports’ critic Arthur West, who has sued the two ports over what he claims is a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act in holding the series of private meetings that led to the agreement, told commissioners he likes the idea those meetings yielded. But West noted after the meeting he still plans to carry on his legal challenge of the legality of those meetings. West’s suit has been referred to federal court from state court. West said he will seek to have the suit returned to state jurisdiction.

Tacoma Commissioner Don Meyer said he wants the two bodies to bring more public sunshine to the alliance operation. He cautioned that the two ports shouldn’t blindly seek market share for Puget Sound, but should emphasis profitable business.

The job of working out the particulars now falls to a team headed by Port of Tacoma Chief Executive John Wolfe assisted by Port of Seattle Deputy CEO Kurt Beckett.

The transition team faces a long list of tasks to do before the alliance can begin operating next summer.