By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After almost five years of near-emptiness, Terminal 5 in West Seattle has container ships in its future again.
Seattle and Tacoma port commissioners, meeting as managing members of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, gave their approval today to an entwined package of leases that shuffle some other terminals as well as setting up T-5 for a $300+ million modernization project starting soon. Memos and overviews are all linked from the agenda – here’s the main one used by a series of presenters before the vote:
The vote wasn’t unanimous – two Tacoma reps expressed a variety of concerns – but it was emphatic.
Just before the vote, which followed a 3-hour briefing/discussion in the Sea-Tac Airport Conference Center, Seattle commissioner Peter Steinbrueck declared that it was no less than a question of “Are we a seaport of the future or a seapart of the past?” He said the plan is evidence “we’re thinking of the future … efforts to produce one of the best seaports on the West Coast” and proclaimed it “grand” as well as “overdue.”
He and others said they were impressed by an overview suggesting the modernization will play a role in creating/sustaining more than 6,000 jobs.
Seattle’s Courtney Gregoire declared those jobs “the heart of our middle-class economy … moving goods.” She recalled visiting many other ports around the country years ago and finding them to be one-way ports, where “boxes are coming in full and leaving empty … that’s not the case here.”
Before we go further, a recap: While the intent to modernize T-5 and make it “big ship ready” had been years in the making, the project wasn’t going to get the green light until there was a tenant. It was finally announced back in February that one had been secured, a joint venture of Stevedoring Services of America Terminals (SSAT) and Terminal International Limited (TIL Group), who already do business with the NWSA. Lease negotiations were expected to be complete in time for a vote last month, but weren’t, so while the commissioners voted in March to send the modernization project out to bid, the lease wasn’t ready for a vote until the special meeting today.
That drew some concern early on from Tacoma’s Don Meyer, who expressed concern that the vote was being taken so soon after they all received a tall stack of documents. He said the public should have had an opportunity to read them before the commissioners committed to decades-long lease terms. (Before the discussion and votes, the public-comment opportunity had no takers.)
Others said while they appreciated the suggestion that more transparency is better, this topic has been amply discussed. They agreed to revisit his concern before the vote – and more than two hours later, he withdrew his motion to delay. Ultimately, though, he was one of the “no” votes. The other was Tacoma’s John McCarthy, who said he supported Phase 1 but not leaping ahead to funding all phases of the project. He likened it to wanting a 5-bedroom house when your job would only support a 3-bedroom house mortgage, just because the 2 extra bedrooms were more affordable now than they’d be in the future.
Many of the concerns voiced across the course of the hearing had to do with points of the plan being more aspirational than anything else.
In some respects, port staff argued, they had to be: “Ultra-large container ships are not coming- they are here today.”
But then there was the long-discussed matter of shore power. It’ll be available, but not mandatory. Meyer pressed on that point: “It doesn’t make sense” to spend money to install it and then “hope” it’s used – “either we require it or we don’t.”
Steinbrueck suggested that could be incentivized – the city could offer lower rates “as a matter of policy and practice …give our shippers a good rate on electric power.”
Staffers said they have worked with SSA to figure out where to install the capability – one vessel at north berth, one at south, with three plug locations – “to make it very easy for the vessels that are shore-power-compliant to be able to use it.” (They don’t have shore power capability right now at T-5.)
Seattle commissioner Fred Felleman said his overriding goal is t “make this oneof the greenest terminals on the West Coast.”
Another long-held community concern that got some discussion time was noise management. Starting with the impending interim Matson move to T-5, backup alarms will be quieter when there’s not a lot of ambient noise “so they’re not necessarily” making extra noise. Steinbrueck voiced concern about community noise complaints and noted that City Councilmember Lisa Herbold had forwarded that concern too. Discussion ensued. NWSA staff noted that the city has strict rules. Steinbrueck noted the challenges of “maintaining a thriving industrial base” so close to a residential area.
In summary, Tacoma’s Clare Petrich was one who saw this as a fulfillment of the destiny seen when the NWSA was created -“an acknowledgment we are one region … operating (together) with one point of view for the future.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Matson – which, it was noted, is investing in new vessels – will be moving soon temporarily to T-5. Among today’s actions was a granting of “step-in rights” so that it wouldn’t lose its Seattle spot if something went awry with the other lease. Matson will operate under a permit that was issued more than 20 years ago “and it will not be subject to the 2019 requirements.” The port explained that it’s expecting some of the equipment currently in use at T-30 to be brought over to T-5 for Matson’s interim use. This will basically be one ship call a week at T-5. A summary of the rest of the timeline is in the NWSA’s post-vote news release.