The Seattle and Tacoma port alliance has set the stage for a clash with the U.S. Coast Guard – and potentially powerful members of the state’s Congressional delegation – by rejecting a key element of the Coast Guard’s plan to expand its Seattle base onto adjacent port land on the central waterfront.
The ports say they are protecting valuable cargo-handling land and longshore union jobs. But the action could also mean Seattle will lose several new patrol ships to Oregon or Alaska, along with several million dollars in lost employment and business revenue.
The Coast Guard wants to expand north, buying up to 54 acres of the port’s underutilized 84-acre Terminal 46 near Pioneer Square. The expansion is essential to redevelopment of the service’s aging Base Seattle, which has far-flung enforcement, safety, and scientific responsibilities throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Their plan calls for rebuilding shore facilities, plus upgrading piers to handle new icebreakers and several new next-generation offshore patrol vessels.
But in March, the Northwest Seaport Alliance (a combo of Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma) said it would deny the Coast Guard all but a small part of T-46 for its expansion. The terminal today is largely unused save for training and storage of empty containers and trailer chassis, with two of its three cranes out of service.
Instead, the port commissioners are trying to steer the Coast Guard toward an expansion to the south. This much more costly option would require major in-water work as well as affecting another cargo terminal, tribal fisheries, and elimination of a public park.
The Alliance’s managing members – Seattle and Tacoma port commissioners – said their action was necessary to preserve the terminal near Pioneer Square for future marine-cargo use and related union jobs. “Once you lose maritime land, it’s gone,” said Sam Cho, Seattle Port Commission president.
Terminal 46 is attractive to the Coast Guard because of its existing large berths, requiring no new construction in the river, and ample upland space. Closer to the mouth of the waterway, the desired site also would have fewer navigational conflicts and less impact on an important Muckleshoot tribal fishery.
These key questions are falling directly into the lap of the state’s Congressional delegation. Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and a longtime champion of the Coast Guard in Washington state, has a particularly big stake in the outcome. Cantwell has strongly endorsed the Coast Guard’s planned base expansion and the icebreaker replacements. For the base to expand to the south, she and her colleague Sen. Patty Murray will have to deliver the additional appropriations – maybe hundreds of millions of dollars.
Terminal 46 has been a flashpoint in the continuing evolution of Seattle and its maritime waterfront. Once lined with shipping piers and railroad lines, the central waterfront has evolved with the changing technology of the maritime industry. Since the 1960s, shipping through Seattle’s port became concentrated in a few very large terminals built to handle ever-larger vessels and to speed cargo rapidly from ship to rail, and then on to Midwest and East Coast markets.
Seattle was an attractive alternative to the larger Los Angeles and Long Beach ports as it lies closer to the important Chinese and other North Pacific markets and has been much less congested.
At more than 300 acres apiece, Terminal 18 on Harbor Island, and the recently expanded and upgraded Terminal 5 in West Seattle, today handle most of Seattle’s international commerce. Terminal 46 and the 82-acre Terminal 30, on the East Waterway of the Duwamish, lack the direct rail-connections of the larger facilities.
As international trade matured, Seattle and Tacoma port leaders realized they could no longer afford their ruinous competition against each other. They formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance joint venture in 2015 to market both ports as a single gateway.
Today the NWSA faces three challenges to its competitive survival. The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports continue to expand. Meanwhile, the port of Prince Rupert in B.C. has lured significant amounts of business from North Asian ports with its rapid turn times and seamless rail connections to the U.S. Midwest.
Third challenge more recently has been from the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast ports now mounting stiff challenges to the West Coast for Asian trade. Shippers are also redirecting cargo due to the unsettled labor contract between West Coast ports and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Coupled with the pandemic-related slump in business, these factors cloud the future of the Seattle and Tacoma ports, and help explain the difficulty the Alliance has faced in finding a new operator at Terminal 46.
The terminal has been a tempting target for developers over the years, who have brought forward plans for convention centers and hotels. The threat to T-46 and other maritime operations posed by the proposed SODO basketball area was the prime reason for the Port of Seattle’s opposition to the basketball project.
Amid a global shipping crash, in 2016, Hanjin Shipping, T-46’s longtime operator, went bankrupt. It sold its Seattle operation to the European giant MSC, which ended its operations there in 2019. At that time, with T-46 empty, the Port of Seattle put forward a plan to build a cruise-ship terminal on a portion of the terminal. The plan was shelved – but not completely abandoned – when the pandemic brought a halt to Alaska cruising.
Without any prospects for a new T-46 tenant, NWSA mounted a serious effort in support of the Coast Guard’s plans to expand its Base Seattle operation. At 22 acres, the Pier 36 base is too small to accommodate three new icebreakers as well as four next-generation offshore patrol cutters. The Alliance knew the Coast Guard would need some port cargo land for new berths and shore-side facilities to handle a doubling of base personnel.
From the start, the expansion faced a serious political problem: opposition from the powerful ILWU. Military vessel work involves no longshore labor, and the union takes a strong stand against any loss of cargo land and related jobs for union workers. Indeed, the Port of Seattle has often joined with the union in fighting City Hall over commercial and housing development that would encroach on maritime activities.
Anticipating push-back from the union, the Alliance stressed to the Coast Guard the need to minimize the taking of cargo land. The Coast Guard’s October 2022 draft environmental review identified expansion to the north of T-46 as its preferred alternative. By this time, however, two new commissioners with strong union ties, Hamdi Mohamad and Toshiko Hasegawa, had won election in Seattle. Both the Seattle and Tacoma ports turned decidedly cool toward selling a significant portion of T-46 to the Coast Guard.
The issue came to a head in March when the NWSA adopted unanimously a resolution that essentially said most of T-46 was off-limits to the Coast Guard. “The NWSA intends to continue to use terminals 30 and 46 for cargo activities to generate economic benefits for the region and its maritime workforce and seeks to preserve the NWSA’s flexibility with a preference for a long-term cargo tenant at Terminal 46 that utilizes two berths at the facility,’’ the resolution said.
Commissioners said they would consider giving up some of T-30, however, and pressed the service to look at ways of reducing its expansion. “Our strong preference is for the Coast Guard to take a small part of T-46 and T-30,” said Sam Cho, Seattle commission president. “That’s the ideal solution.”
Cho acknowledged, however, that expanding south might prove too costly for the Coast Guard, and thus Seattle risks losing four extra vessels to ports outside Washington, such Astoria, Ore., he said.
Is turning down the sale of port land to the Coast Guard a good deal for the Alliance? That is an open question, as there has been much talk but no firm offers by big shipping lines to occupy T-46. The Alliance has been in protracted negotiations with a small company for a short-term lease to utilize one berth.
Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins, while he voted for the March resolution, bemoans the lack of an objective financial and market analysis for the action. “We need to talk numbers,” Calkins said. Given the shifts in the cargo market, the Alliance should be looking at all maritime options for finding a tenant, including project cargo, roll-on roll-off vessels, and the Coast Guard. He says the Alliance should ask: Which option brings the greatest number of jobs and the best financial return for the Alliance and the region?
Predicting the needs of the trans-Pacific shipping industry is always perilous, especially in these days of increasing tensions with China, the region’s biggest trading partner. But one close industry observer is skeptical that the Alliance will land a major customer for T-46 anytime soon.
With its other terminals in Seattle and Tacoma, the Alliance has “plenty of capacity,’’ said Jordan Royer, of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, the trade group representing shipping lines. With the Coast Guard as a partner, “you know you are going to get paid and they will be here for a long time,” Royer said.
Coast Guard brass – up to the highest ranks — privately has been extremely unhappy with the ports with the turn-about on use of port land for its expansion. They have visited other ports to scope their capabilities. The Coast Guard is accustomed to being welcomed with open arms by its host cities.
Yet the Coast Guard has signaled it recognizes the local political situation by delaying its final environmental review and record of decision until the end of the year. A spokesman said the service is reviewing the Alliance actions as it finalizes the environmental studies.
Enter U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, whose Commerce Committee oversees the service. She has long championed the Coast Guard and its important security, environmental and safety mission in the Northwest, including the construction of icebreakers to replace the aging U.S. fleet. This gives her plenty of influence with the service’s admirals.
With Sen. Patty Murray chairing Appropriations, and senior lawmakers in the House, Washington does have the political muscle to come up with the millions of extra dollars to fund a more expensive expansion plan.
“This is no small lift, but I know our congressional representatives would work hard to help us find a win-win, and I believe we have finally made the Coast Guard aware of the importance of keeping an open mind,” said Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman.
Seattle may have the political juice to swing the more costly decision. Even so, that will not guarantee the Alliance can land a container customer for T-46’s two berths.
The region’s ports must still grapple with an international shipping market in turmoil, over which they have little control, as well as conflicts abroad. At some point, the port’s leaders may be forced into new thinking about how the maritime facilities should best be used.