(2015 photo by Don Brubeck)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When port-bound trucks clog routes leading to shipping terminals, who’s ultimately accountable for clearing them, and preventing future problems?
That was part of what was explored in depth during port reps’ visit last night to the West Seattle Transportation Coalition, which also reviewed key points made by participants in its June workshop about light-rail routing.
PORT TRUCKS: As they had done at this month’s Southwest District Council meeting, operations executive Zachary Thomas from the Northwest Seaport Alliance and Port of Seattle communicator Mick Shultz talked, and answered questions, about the truck traffic.
Thomas explained again about how the shifting alliances in the shipping business had led to the “additional volume (for) some terminals” and less for others. The “general shift of volume from Tacoma to Seattle” led to a 40 percent increase in volume at Terminal 18 on the east side of Harbor Island at one point this spring, Thomas said, noting that similar changes were happening around the world at the same time, “massive changes” that meant “for the first two to four weeks of the new alliance(s) … the vessels were just all over the place.” (Terminal 46, further north, didn’t see any change, though.)
At the time of that volume increase, “you would have seen a lot of trucks, no doubt about it.” The terminal operator, SSA, did take action in response to what was going on, Thomas said – though not enough to prevent backups. So that led to some grilling on who could have and should have done more.
One WSTC member asked how much advance notice the port had about these changes. They knew changes were going to happen (in fact, we received and published this alert in April), but they didn’t know until the last moment exactly how things were going to play out. “We put out as much information as we could,” but since the port itself does not operate the terminals – the tenants do – they aren’t a direct participant in business decisions and discussions. “The reality is, we don’t dictate, we don’t get to say ‘do this/do that’,” Thomas said. “Once the decisions are made, we sit down with Terminal 18/SSA, and say, ‘what are you going to do to handle this volume?’ … Our role to play is to make sure the terminals working these vessels are doing everything they can do” to handle it.”
That led to a followup observation that, for example, traffic speculation in the Terminal 5 modernization environmental impact report might be inaccurate, if problems like the backups can’t be fully predicted.
Thomas detailed some of the action that had been taken, such as opening the gates to get trucks onto the terminal property and off the street even before the day’s processing began.
He also talked about some of the realities of the business – “historically, it’s never been cheaper” to get your cargo across the ocean, and competition is part of what took Hanjin – previously a Port of Seattle tenant – out of business.
“Are other seaports having (similar) issues?” was another question.
“They all are,” said Thomas, saying numerous ports around the world have the same issue as ours, having to make changes to keep up with increasing ship sizes, among other ways in which ocean shipping is evolving. Some ports in other countries are even using fill to create new land for port expansions (as did Seattle decades ago, resulting in Harbor Island, as an attendee noted).
It was pointed out that the truck backups kept people from accessing West Seattle at some times – “so are you going to change your leasing agreements… to step back and say, ‘we have to take this into account’?” Leases don’t currently have language about these issues, but Thomas replied that the Port Commissioners of Seattle and Tacoma are the people who would have to make the decision to change that. “Most of these lease agreements are very long term – 20 or 30 years,” and could be “opened up,” but that would open the leases up to discussion of other issues too. Overall, he reiterated, it’s up to the commissioners to “find that balance,” he said, saying that while he couldn’t speak for them, he knows they are thinking about such things. He also pointed out that the shipping-line alliance changes are not under the control or influence of the terminal operators.
Another attendee said he had contacted Port of Seattle Police to ask about enforcement, noting that they had pointed him to city police. “Is it possible that the port can hire off-duty cops to police that whole stretch?” Thomas replied, “We can look into that.”
Another way to try to increase safety when truck volume is high: Putting in barriers to separate traffic on roads such as East Marginal. (SDOT has an East Marginal Way project in the works, it was pointed out – read more about that here.) Shultz said construction in the general area – such as Highway 99 – is affecting traffic in the area too.
“So who’s ultimately responsible?” asked WSTC chair Michael Taylor-Judd. “Or should we be getting SPD in here and (asking them to ticket violators)?”
“It’s a combination of stakeholders,” Thomas replied. The streets are the city’s responsibility; the terminals, their operators; the truckers, the independent businesses that they’re all operating. “In those times that you have … a couple hundred trucks, it completely goes beyond the ability of any one group to call a tow truck.” Shultz picked up to say they’re hearing from city leaders, among others, and mentioned that the manager of T-18 was out one day in a safety vest actually directing traffic to get trucks off the street. “It’s a shared responsibility, and the port understands that we share (some of it).”
What else is being done? Thomas mentioned the free app he had explained at the SWDC meeting, with information about the trucking situation, Dray Q – “we’re putting that out as a visibility tool, and that’s available to anybody.” But, pressed WSTC’s Deb Barker, what about warning SDOT to warn residents? (Watching traffic every morning, we can say, there were very few alerts when trucks were backed up – we mostly heard about backups directly from readers.) Thomas said they are working with SDOT and trying to help it use the app’s data to be aware of truck backups.
WSTC member Mark Jacobs wondered if truckers could be queued in a way similar to the Cell Phone Parking Lot at Sea-Tac Airport (which the port also runs) – waiting somewhere until they are told the terminal is ready for them. Could Terminal 5 be used for that? asked Barker. The port reps noted again that a tenant is being sought for T-5, and that it would be up to port commissioners to decide whether to use it that way in the meantime.
How does a trucker know when to be at the port, then? asked Bert Patrick. There are no appointments, was the reply – a trucker’s dispatched when they are dispatched.
There are so many “individual businesses” involved in the chain of events that don’t necessarily share data because some “consider it proprietary,” Shultz pointed out. “We need to get greater visibility of that data and use it in a way that makes everybody more effective.” Thomas says, “We’re doing everything we can to facilitate making it more efficient … so trucks are moving at a higher velocity … terminals are handling the increased volumes … (so that) communities surrounding them are not suffering.” He again said it’s about “finding that balance.”
WORKSHOP WRAPUP – AND HOW ABOUT A GONDOLA? No final report on last month’s light-rail routing workshop yet, said chair Taylor-Judd, but the group shared bullet points from what was brought up at the various tables around The Hall at Fauntleroy, by people who were there in person. (Here’s our as-it-happened coverage from the event last month.) Here are photos of the two sides of the one-sheet that was handed out – we’ll replace with a PDF when we get it:
You’ll notice #4 missing in the recap – that was the “routing” table, so it resulted in a map, not a list.
Vice chair Marty Westerman had a provocative question, “Why do we want light rail?” – at all.
Redmond said a major benefit is that it would create “a new passage across the Duwamish Waterway” – a new bridge – which is needed because what’s there now is maxed out.
Regarding the bullet points, Taylor-Judd said table #1, Delridge, was particularly interested in whether Sound Transit‘s early “representational alignment” was the appropriate route or not, and whether it would be better to tunnel from there into The Junction. From table #2, 35th and Avalon, also a question about undergrounding, whether the golf course could be used for routing, and whether the station should be closer to 35th and Alaska, or whether this station could be deleted altogether if that meant funding would be available for tunneling, which is “not currently budgeted at all” and would cost another half a billion dollars at the least, as Taylor-Judd noted.
From table #3, the Junction station, the currently envisioned elevated station would affect many things, including views. And from table #5, “The Kitchen Sink” – aka everything else – there were issues such as whether this technology will become obsolete before West Seattle’s light-rail target date in 2030 arrives. Could the bridge across the Duwamish be built sooner, with buses using it before light rail?
And what about a gondola across the bay instead? That got back to Westerman’s “why do we want light rail?” question. It could be years faster and many millions cheaper than light rail, and could go further – to Morgan, for example. “if we think outside the box, (the money that’s already being collected) could (go further),” he said.
Taylor-Judd asked if the WSTC board would be interested in advocating for/exploring alternatives such as that. Yes, they said, so it’ll be an item at the next board meeting.
Other postmortem points included hearing from participants that they would like to see more community-driven discussions such as the workshop; Taylor-Judd said WSTC also realized that Metro should be brought into the loop more, too.
Redmond said that WSTC should research “policy issues” such as parking near transit stations – since other cities have it, and “it works,” he said. “(Not pursuing parking is) a stupid issue of the Seattle City Council, that’s all it is.”
More than 50 people attended the workshop, Taylor-Judd said (that’s about what we counted, too), and those who filled out WSTC’s survey about the experience – about half – said they felt they had learned a lot. The demographics of those who filled out the survey included a two-to-one homeowners-to-renters split.
They’ll finish assembling the results and wait to get feedback on it before deciding on whether to have another similar event. The full gamut of available feedback – including scans of what was written – will be provided to Sound Transit, though the agency (which had reps at the workshop) is under no obligation to do anything with it. “We’re going to give them as much raw data as possible,” said Taylor-Judd.
OTHER NOTES: WSTC is now officially recognized as “a nonprofit corporation” by the state, though it does not yet have 501(c)(3) status: “We’re a step up from bare bones.” They might need the higher-level status if they want to continue with public-education events such as last month’s workshop (which cost $800 for rental/refreshments). The group – which doesn’t charge dues – does incur expenses from time to time. And as Taylor-Judd pointed out, “we welcome all support going forward.” … WSTC might in the future do some of its own Find It Fix It type walks to encourage community members to log and report problems…. Taylor-Judd says the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce is suggesting that WSTC co-sponsor a general-election candidates’ forum, mayor and council seats most likely, in the third week of September. They’re going to suggest port commission candidates be included. (Here’s our coverage of the mayoral-candidates forum the Chamber presented last week.)
INTERESTED IN BEING ON THE WSTC BOARD? Elections will be on the agenda at WSTC’s September meeting.
The West Seattle Transportation Coalition meets on the fourth Thursday most months – not in August – 6:30 pm at Neighborhood House High Point (6400 Sylvan Way).