Op-Ed: Freight mobility and productive marine cargo terminals support a stronger economy for all
By Peter Steinbrueck
Port of Seattle Commission President and Co-Chair of The Northwest Seaport Alliance
The economic woes of 2020 and the global pandemic continue to deepen across our communities. According to data recently released by the Washington State Department of Commerce, the decline in statewide employment is approximately 30 percent greater than the lowest point of the Great Recession.
As our region turns toward economic recovery, having the marine cargo terminals open and fully operational will be critical to supporting good family wage jobs in Seattle. This is why freight access to Terminal 5 (T-5) and Harbor Island is so important. Industrial job growth played a key role in insulating the city’s tax base during the last recession, and I am hopeful that the manufacturing and maritime sector can play a similar role in recovery from the current one.
The combined ports of Tacoma and Seattle – operated by The Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) – made our largest public investment in the modernization of T-5. Located in West Seattle, T-5 has long been considered a premier West Coast container cargo facility because of its naturally deep berth, wide footprint and the availability of an on-dock rail yard, allowing containers to be directly loaded from the ship onto rail. The new ultra-large container ships require larger cranes with a longer reach, requiring strengthening the dock and upgrading utilities – which is why The NWSA made this significant investment.
The T-5 project allows us to expand our cargo-handling capabilities to remain globally competitive and grow our local economy. With the largest marine cargo vessels entering the trans-Pacific trade, our T-5 investments are critical for Washington state agricultural and other exports to global markets, in addition to growing cargo volumes and maritime jobs in the region.
We hope that a modernized T-5 will be a cornerstone of our state’s trade-dependent economy. The estimated economic impact of T-5 investments is expected to include more than $90 million in direct state economic activity, and more than $2 billion over the term of its lease. From a jobs’ standpoint, we expect to see the creation of 6,600 new direct jobs in and around Seattle, in addition to more than 20,000 direct jobs and almost 60,000 total jobs that The NWSA cargo operations currently support throughout the Puget Sound Gateway. In the meantime, current construction activity at T-5 provides job creation and tax generation.
When the West Seattle Bridge closed, our T-5 marine terminal operator immediately expressed its concerns about the future success of the T-5 project and its continued use of Seattle’s marine terminals if access to the Port’s facilities is compromised by the high bridge closure, and bridge repair or replacement project. Our operator has already heard concerns from current and potential customers about access to Seattle marine terminals. Discretionary cargo must move efficiently and quickly to and from those terminals, or it will be shipped elsewhere—at our loss.
As shipping lines have consolidated operations into larger vessels with fewer port calls, competition for the trans-Pacific market has become particularly fierce. British Columbia ports have grown substantially over the last decade, as the Canadian government directly invests in port and logistics infrastructure and its national goods movement strategy, while the U.S. government does not by comparison.
Unfortunately, this premier facility is reliant on access to the two most used routes in and out of West Seattle – the lower swing bridge and West Marginal Way. There is no other route for trucks to go. While on-dock rail will play an important role in the terminal’s future operations, trucks will remain important in the meantime. In addition, the onsite dock workers, who support the efficient movement of goods in and out of the terminal must also have reliable access – freight does not move efficiently without them.
While the north berth is scheduled to open to international cargo next spring, the south berth will not be finished until early 2023. Hence, beyond the expected near-term increase in freight flow and maritime workers, construction vehicles must continue to have efficient access to the terminal.
We recognize the competing demands for these transportation corridors. We will continue to work closely with the City of Seattle, the impacted communities and all stakeholders to find the best possible solution to replacing the West Seattle High bridge that is equitable, cost effective, and balances the collective needs of our region for the long term. But time will not wait. The good news is that, in the interim, our T-5 access needs can work in concert with emergency vehicles and transit prioritization on the lower bridge if traffic is well-managed. Terminal 5 must be successful. At a time of economic downturn and job loss due to the health pandemic, we cannot risk the terminal’s opportunity to expand trade, restart our economy and grow living-wage jobs.
You know what is also essential for the economic livelihood of our community? Roads that work for all residents, whether they are transporting children to childcare, medical appointments, work or other vital destinations that keep our pandemic-hammered economy running. What I'm reading into this OpEd is not a simple reminder of the importance of our port traffic but air cover for the City to prioritize port traffic above everyone else. We've already seen the City hand over the low bridge to port traffic without any input from residents and there is now discussion of reconfiguring West Marginal Way to benefit port traffic, while the rest of us watch our commute times increase exponentially every single week. This bridge closure is undermining our community, driving small businesses into failure and forcing our neighbors to move away. How much more miserable is the city willing to make WS residents? From what I'm seeing there is not limit to their disregard. Don't mistake this tone of outrage for what I am really feeling which is utterly defeated. I have lost all faith in City/SDOT to look out for working people.