By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
For all the noise-making over the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin‘s Port of Seattle visit three months ago, it seemed barely a whisper was heard when news emerged three weeks ago that the largest cargo ship to visit the U.S. won’t make cross-Pacific runs after all.
But, Northwest Seaport Alliance deputy CEO Kurt Beckett told the West Seattle Transportation Coalition‘s May meeting, expanding the capacity of Terminal 5 in West Seattle is still a must.
Beckett’s visit to the WSTC last Thursday night was supposed to be related to the T-5 project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, published by the port for public comment. The official deadline for that is June 21st, with two public meetings next week. But the discussion sailed beyond project specifics – which Beckett said he couldn’t discuss much anyway during the comment period – and into the waters of how “fluid” the seaport business is right now.
It was clear from the start that this wasn’t a meeting with a presentation. “We’re in a listening mode,” is how it was described by Beckett, who said that since he has a focus on operations for the Seattle-Tacoma alliance, he is “the lead on T-5” on the executive team. Rather than offering comments – which, Beckett acknowledged, wouldn’t be on the record anyway, at meetings other than the ones set for June 7th and 9th – WSTC board members and attendees launched right into questions:
First was about the Benjamin Franklin and what its change in plan means to the “big-ship-readying” process for Terminal 5.
That’s when Beckett said things are “fluid” in the cargo business. A vessel that size wasn’t expected here for 10 more years anyway, he insisted, saying the biggest vessels usually go to the Asia-Europe trade, and then “cascade” this way. CGA CGM just decided to try the cross-Pacific run because “rates” for Asia-to-Europe had been “so bad,” he added. Whether T-5 serves 10,000-TEU ships or 12,000 or 14,000 or … T-5 would still need the same infrastructure, Beckett summarized. (The Benjamin Franklin’s capacity is 18,000.)
He also was asked if they would consider extending the comment period, given the volume of the draft EIS – no decisions on that yet.
Next question: With the terminals that exist now, does the port expect consolidation after the expansion project so that T-5 would eventually be the Port of Seattle’s main cargo terminal?
Beckett didn’t clearly answer that, but threw out several observations. “There’s a lot in motion,” he began, going on to explain that the “non-container business” also is essential – the port is not just about container traffic. He also pointed out that shipping lines have consolidated, evolving from the past situations in which every shipping line had its own terminal. However: “No matter whose terminal it is and who’s using it, you have to get your utilization rate up” – Seattle’s Terminal 46, for example, has a 95 percent utilization rate, he said.
He went on to remind the group that last year’s formation of the NW Seaport Alliance means Seattle and Tacoma “aren’t negotiating against each other any more.” Next month, for example, he said that two “strings” of cargo that had gone from Seattle to Tacoma are moving back this way again, to Terminal 18 on Harbor Island.
In regards to the bigger ships for which T-5 is supposed to be getting ready under this project, Beckett was asked about other regional operations and how this terminal fits into the big picture. The alliance’s big plan calls for upgrading Terminal 4 in Tacoma, as well as T-5 here, as two big strategic piers, but, he said, that does not mean that other terminals “go away.” For the even bigger-picture view of the upgrade, he promised that the port/alliance has a “sound financial plan” and is not “getting on the hook” for costs that won’t be recovered.
So – “If mega-ships are years out, what else is in your vision for T-5?”
“We wouldn’t put your community through this process if we didn’t think (it was relevant),” said Beckett. He at that point described the Benjamin Franklin’s visit as almost “a distraction” – explaining that smaller “big ships” still need the infrastructure for which the Port is planning. Looping back to the draft EIS, he said it must look at what “the maximum” would be, “what’s the most that could happen there?” even if that “maximum” is not likely to happen any time soon.
For context at that point, Beckett recapped how the Port of Seattle got started more than a century ago, and how it was expected that the opening of the Panama Canal would bring a cargo boom that didn’t show up immediately – but the port infrastructure got built, and proved useful later. “That’s why the Port of Seattle became the biggest port at the time on the West Coast … We don’t want a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of thing, but we’re not starting from scratch .. one of the greenest things you can do is leverage existing infrastructure.”
As for new infrastructure – an East Admiral resident wielding a hard copy of the draft EIS brought up a sticking point regarding the expansion project: “There’s nothing set in stone for this whole process, right? No shore power established unless you bring a (certain) number of TEU’s to Terminal 5?” (That’s a reference to having the capability for ships to plug into onshore electricity rather than running their engines while in port.)
Beckett at that point mentioned that cruise-ship Terminal 91 has shore power. And the draft EIS mentions the potential for two berths at T-5 to have shore power, if a particular “alternative” development plan is pursued. But does that represent a commitment? Beckett said it would be presumptive to say the process would definitely result in that “The Seaport Alliance needs a very consistent, efficient … (operation … and) want to make that as much of a collective, positive operation as we can. … (But) the green product isn’t always the cheapest …”
Next WSTC question: “This all feels like the chicken and the egg … I’m hearing (shippers say) they bypass us because ‘we’re not the port they want’ … At what point do you say this is really going to (work) for us?”
Beckett said that if he could “snap his fingers” and have a “commercially viable” setup at T-5, he’d do it tomorrow.
“But … what are the commercially viable steps to get there?”
The reply provided more backstory than specifics, and more about the “fluid” nature of the business to which Beckett had alluded earlier. He mentioned a new shipping-line alliance (DCI?) that just formed days ago, close on the heels of another new one, and one before that, “all in the past 8 months, two in the past 30 days …” He noted that NW Seaport Alliance CEO John Wolfe was about to leave on a trip to Asia, “and that’s where the commercial negotiation is fully in the mix, and that’s fully moving forward … The EIS process (is) a track … and the design process … So we have three tracks going. We don’t want to have anything (but) a successful process … the vision is the larger gateway approach … that’s how fluid it is.” The cargo world itself is “fluid” beyond oceangoing shipping, with air cargo figuring into it too.
So far as oceangoing is concerned, this area has its strengths, Beckett declared, such as a recent study showing this is “the lowest carbon-footprint area” for shipping. And then there’s berth depth – the East Coast needs to dredge to get to 50 feet, Beckett said, while T-5 is there already (and getting ready to go deeper). He also talked about a strength of this area, “integrating the distribution chain.” That encompasses many things, including the clean-truck program, appointment systems, and other kinds of tech. “If there’s enough cargo, you have money to do more gates, (like) night gates.” And that too means efficiency, he said. That can be woven into the EIS – “so we’re not over-promising, but it’s real, today. … Compared to LA/Long Beach, we’re small, we can move faster.” And those ports’ railroad service is 15 miles inland, while at T-5, it’s right next to the dock.
A question then came up about the draft EIS mentioning the potential of 1,800 trucks a day, and how that would affect area traffic. Beckett suggested that be submitted as a comment on the DEIS.
And there was a concern about how the T-5 plan would interface with city projects and plans, such as SDOT‘s recently released draft Freight Master Plan (itself in a comment period until early July), and the revived Lander Street Bridge (formerly “overpass”) project.
While Beckett said he couldn’t comment on endorse non-port projects/plans, he suggested that overall, the T-5 upgrades could benefit the “system.”
Trying to strike a note of reassurance along the way, he said, “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think there’s a bright future … there’s plenty of challenges out there and we think it’s worth the battle.”
Read the draft EIS here (two PDFs linked under “open projects”), and comment by 4 pm June 21st; you can do that in writing, via the “online open house,” and/or by attending one of the upcoming public hearings, 5-8 pm June 7th at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle College (WSB sponsor) at 6737 Corson Ave. S. and 5-8 pm June 9th at the Alki Masonic Center in the West Seattle Junction at 40th/Edmunds.