(UPDATED Tuesday night with added comment from Port of Seattle)
(Port of Seattle graphic with modernization-plan toplines, from 2014 slide deck)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Among the more than 30 people in attendance were residents of East Admiral, neighbors of T-5, concerned about port-related issues with which they’ve long dealt.
One major question of the night: Why the port felt it does not need a new environmental-impact review for the upcoming modernization project. A related city comment period was coming to a close as the meeting was held, but it didn’t involve a full-fledged review.
Port managers contend one isn’t needed because T-5 won’t be handling more volume. That’s a contention the residents are challenging with an online petition, and a stack of formal comments (see their letters by going here and choosing the “documents” tab).
The port reps’ appearance at last Thursday’s WSTC meeting began with basic backstory for the quarter-billion-dollar project:
“The market continues to grow, but we’ve lost market share,” said Bari Bookout, the port’s director of seaport commercial strategy. Yet the port “wants to continue being an engine of economic vitality.” So, with ships getting bigger, “those ships will go to the ports that will handle them.” And that’s why they are pursuing modernization, “basically an upgrade of the dock and dock structure … and deepening the berth” from 50 to 55 feet. “The shipping lines are getting rid of their small ships,” she added.
She also folded in the explanation of why Seattle and Tacoma are forming an alliance – leaving behind a past of trying to “steal” business from each other, in what she said became “a race to the bottom.” The two ports’ commissions will finalize creation of the Northwest Seaport Alliance on August 4th, “a competitive gateway … keeping the jobs here.”
Terminal 5 has the potential of being “a very efficient container terminal,” with its rail connections and “gorgeous” acreage. But, Bookout said, they need a tenant. (Here’s the “request for information” the port circulated this past spring, starting the search.) The original T-5 had an Environmental Impact Statement for about 650,000 containers a year, dating back 20 years. It only reached that volume in the mid-2000s and has more often been below it. They don’t expect higher volumes in T-5’s future and in fact think it could take 10 years to get there.
Asked about other terminals, Bookout said Terminal 46 is at 90 percent capacity for containers (about 305,000). Terminal 25, which is not maxed out, is not deep enough – 45 feet, compared to 55 feet needed for the big ships.
Asked if the port could make changes related to transportation impacts, she mentioned what it’s already done – including building the East Marginal Way Grade Separation.
WSTC co-chair Amanda Kay Helmick wondered if the port has been talking with the city about the promised West Seattle Bridge Corridor Task Force study. Bookout said, “We will definitely engage in that discussion.” (Side note: Though the city said in January that the task force would be formed and working by now, we haven’t seen or heard any evidence of that yet.)
WSTC board member Michael Taylor-Judd wondered about the port’s plans for handling potential maximum container traffic at T-5 given the changing nature of traffic in the area and the increased potential for conflicts. “We’re holistically working with everyone to try to make a better system,” Bookout said.
Joining her a bit belatedly – in part, it was noted, because of traffic – George Blomberg, the port’s senior environmental-program manager, answered questions including one about train-horn noise. He said it’s a problem around the city. He noted that the overpasses remove some of the conflicts at intersections, but trains are still required to sound their horns, not just at the 5-way intersection at West Marginal/Spokane/etc., and at curb cuts all along the way. Bookout said they had facilitated discussions between BNSF and residents concerned about noise.
One of the residents said T-5 modernization would be a great opportunity to implement a “quiet zone.”
Bookout said local cargo will always be here, but “the Canadian railroads have priced expressively” and have new and expanding ports, so they are “going after cargo that used to be our bread and butter.” Terminal 46, 30, and 18 don’t have on-dock rail,” while T-5 does, and would help keep the port competitive.
Another question: “If it’s a rail issue, what’s kept the port from investing in (more of) it?”
Bookout said there’s no room at the other terminals, which is why they did it at T-5. She also mentioned infrastructure being put in so that ships can plug into shore power, as cruise ships do. While that infrastructure is part of the modernization process, “the shipping lines hate shore power,” she said, because it’s a costly upgrade for them. “They’re struggling right now in California, which has mandated it,” she said.
You’re putting a $250 million bet (the expected cost of T-5 modernization) down? observed WSTC board member Tom Linde.
We’re not spending that until we have a tenant, Bookout replied. We’re laying the groundwork. And, soliciting a tenant means they’ll get more information about how that tenant would want to operate the terminal.
Other questions included: is the port involved in off-site traffic improvements? Such as the infamous aforementioned 5-way intersection?
“The signals need to be improved,” said Blomberg. It was pointed out that SDOT is working on the intersection overall. Back to the subject of moving the containers, while more rail use means fewer trucks, Blomberg explained, it means loading at night, and the train might move out early in the morning.
Environmental review would be required if an operator of the terminal presents a plan calling for a change in capacity, Bookout said.
Taylor-Judd noted that the “we’re changing, but nothing’s really changing” contention also was being heard from Washington State Ferries, so even if it’s a similar volume, there might be more traffic impact.
“Even with big ships there, you’re still going to have an even flow of traffic from the terminal,” Bookout insisted. “There might be two big ships with 10,000 containers, or three small ships with 10,000 containers.” Also, a big ship wouldn’t necessarily offload everything here.
Terminal 5’s attributes continued to be described glowingly – 220 trucks can queue there, for example, said Blomberg.
Norman Sigler, a Port Commission Position 5 candidate in attendance, asked about the timeline and also, if the volume’s not going up, “what’s the payback for the investment?”
Bookout acknowledged that last time they invested in T-5, the planning wasn’t visionary enough – they didn’t envision ships getting this big. Optimally, T-5 would be back in operation by mid-2018, but “that is very market-dependent,” she added.
WSTC’s Deb Barker asked, “Is that tenant out there, or will you have to steal it from someplace else? And (what about) using T-5 for other transportation purposes in and out of West Seattle – passenger ferry, transit center?”
Bookout said, “We are optimistic that there is a tenant out there because it’s a (good) opportunity.” For the rest of the acreage, “we are actively generating other revenue-generating uses.” She noted that the controversial Foss/Shell lease “is an attempt to generate revenue while the terminal is vacant.” If you have a proposal, Blomberg said, bring it on.
Another question from an attendee: When the dredging happens to deepen T-5, where will the dirt go? Bookout said, part of it is contaminated sediment that can only be disposed of a certain way. Blomberg said barge-mounted cranes would be used, transferring the sediment into drainage-controlled containers on a barge, then put on a train and taken to Eastern Washington. Clean dredge sediment might be used in Elliott Bay.
A resident said that if they acknowledge mistakes were made 21 years ago, why aren’t they doing an EIS now to look at all the issues? “For transparency, for community involvement, for everyone to feel good about this project … why not bite the bullet on a $250 million project and do an EIS?”
“Did you read the (environmental) checklist (that the port is working with)?” asked Blomberg.
Yes, many times, she said. But they’re still waiting for some replies on earlier comments. “We want to help you … listen to our comments, we live in this community, as do you. … We need you to listen to us, (respond to) our comments … don’t skip (our concerns) … in a $250 million, $300 million investment … This is not for us, this is for our kids.”
Blomberg said he couldn’t say why the residents hadn’t received responses to their comments.
Helmick tried to mediate by saying there were pre-existing issues.
“The previous operator went 10 years without a noise complaint,” said Blomberg at that point, and the neighbors loudly challenged that. “When did you first call me?” he asked one attendee. “2010,” replied the attendee. “See, that’s 10 years,” he replied (preceding that call).
Not long after that, the port discussion ended, at least for this meeting on this night, aside from one later point in WSTC discussion, that additional studies seem merited because the external factors have changed since the 1990s review, even if the container totals weren’t expected to increase.
Also at the WSTC meeting:
‘FAUNTLEROY BOULEVARD’ TRAFFIC: WSTC board member Ray Krueger told the group he had gone to Fauntleroy/Avalon 5:55-8:20 am to observe, and went back to watch the inbound traffic, 4:10-5:40 pm. What he saw, he said, seemed to portend poorly for the Fauntleroy Boulevard project (which would be funded in the “Move Seattle” levy that goes to voters in November). He hadn’t crunched the volume numbers, though, but he believes that it doesn’t jibe with what SDOT had reported about its study of the area. Co-chair Helmick suggested a public-disclosure request to get the city’s traffic study.
DOWNTOWN WATERFRONT FUTURE: Board member Linde went to a briefing. It didn’t address anything between West Seattle and the stadiums, he said, just stadiums-to-Belltown. He said the EIS separates what’s happening with the tunnel and what’s happening on the surface. Board member Deb Barker pointed out that many components of what’s happening in the area are being considered apart from each other. If you’re coming in via bus or personal vehicle and getting off before the tunnel, Barker said, you’ll be deciding around Atlantic that you’re going to take the Dearborn exit, which takes you off 99, a straight shot onto Alaskan Way, via an offramp. You’ll be able to travel on Alaskan Way; buses will go up Columbia to 3rd, there will be C-Line stops on Alaskan Way.
The transit plan into downtown seems to work pretty well, board member Taylor-Judd suggested, but what happens to other modes is not clear. Cars will just “disperse” to other streets south of Columbia, it was noted. The inadequacies of the transit system to handle everyone came up.
HOUSING AFFORDABILITY REPORT: Though it wasn’t a formal agenda item, the discussion wound its way around to the recently unveiled advisory-committee report and mayoral “action plan.” Board member Chris Bast said that if the city is making a decision about moving people from cars to transit, then we need to get all the enthusiasm into transit; with 120,000 more people expected to move to the area in the next 20 years, they can either live in suburbs and clog up the roads, or they can have transit-oriented deveoopment in the city and lots of transit. “How do people get from West Seattle to downtown” needs to be a focus as the local component, said Helmick. One more point made before discussion concluded: A suggestion that the HALA report seems to be putting everything in terms of absorbing growth on the city of Seattle, when it’s a regional problem,
WSTC BOARD MEMBER JOINING CITY TRANSIT ADVISORY BOARD: Marci Carpenter has been nominated to the city’s new Transit Advisory Board> – “I’m going to be pushing for more transit,” she vowed. Her appointment for a three-year term will go before the City Council Transportation Committee at its meeting this morning (July 28th), 9:30 am.
The West Seattle Transportation Coalition meets on fourth Thursdays at Neighborhood House’s High Point Center.
ADDED TUESDAY NIGHT: After we published this, Port of Seattle spokesperson Peter McGraw e-mailed us with an additional comment on something the Port reps mentioned at the meeting:
We began planning and permitting for the dock and berth improvements based on our best assumptions of what operations may look like at T-5, which fit the existing environmental review. As we move forward in the process of selecting a new tenant, we will obtain more information about how that tenant intends to operate the terminal and what volumes they would like to plan for. If this volume exceeds the existing environmental review, the Port will conduct the appropriate reviews and permitting for that level of usage.
We asked if any potential tenants had yet responded to the “request for information” we noted above; he said that’s “confidential.”