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Washington state law permits adjacent port districts to go into joint ventures, but Tacoma officials fear domination by Seattle, which needs room to expand; port commissioners give a proposed merger study the deep six to protect one member’s seat on board; ports are only 30 miles apart, and port directors see many advantages in developing the Puget Sound complex as a single entity.
Civic pride and more than a little politicking have scuttled — at least temporarily — a controversial proposal to study whether the competing Puget Sound ports of Seattle and Tacoma should cooperate and, ultimately, merge.
Tacoma area residents have been justly proud of the rapid growth of their port during the past decade. It was on this pride that several candidates for a local port commission played for attention when Seattle’s port made its cooperation/merger proposition.
Candidates for the six-year elective position held by Commission president Robert G. Earley immediately branded the proposal as a power grab on Seattle’s part. Any such study or talks, they charged, would be dominated by Seattle — endangering Tacoma’s ability to be autonomous.
Because Tacoma’s port has been so successful, Earley’s challengers were grasping for a campaign issue when the cooperation/merger question surfaced. With the prospect of this issue propelling Earley out of office and upsetting the port’s power structure, the three commissioners quickly deep-sixed the study proposal — at least until the end of the year.
Considered since the 1960s
The question of whether the port authorities of Seattle and Tacoma should merge is not new. At various times dating back to the late 1960s, there have been bills in the state legislature to form a Puget Sound port authority of the Seattle and Tacoma ports as well as several smaller port districts.
For reasons of civic pride or just plain provincialism, depending on a person’s point of view, Tacoma area residents and Port of Tacoma officials have adamantly opposed regional port legislation, with the result that the bills always failed.
It was feared that Seattle’s port district, having a much larger population base than that of Tacoma’s port 30 miles to the South, would dominate administration of a regional authority. It was warned that Seattle would consolidate the most beneficial forms of shipping in its harbor and earmark less desirable types of activity for Tacoma.
Tacoma gaining strength
However, during the past five years of rapid growth at Tacoma’s port, officials there have been thrust into a position of strength in dealing with its neighbor to the north.
It was realized — by port administrators if not the local citizenry — that it would be in the best interest of both ports to cooperate more fully in matters not jeopardizing the ability of the two ports to compete for certain cargoes.
A current example of such cooperation is the two ports’ joint effort to attack any proposal — such as the Hatfield bill — that would impose a nationwide user fee that would, in effect, require the two deep-draft ports to subsidize river port competitors such as Portland.
In this atmosphere of increased informal cooperation, the Port of Seattle proposed that the time was at hand to sit down with the Port of Tacoma and embark on a study that could lead to more formal means of cooperation and perhaps outright merger a few years downstream.
That proposal, which included the appointment of a “blue ribbon” committee of citizens from both cities to help the ports study the question, appeared on the agenda of a Port of Tacoma commissioners meeting — at which the plan was promptly torpedoed.
Despite the Tacoma port administration’s attempt to remove the merger question from consideration and dwell only on the ports’ cooperation possibility, the issue quickly became too hot for the Commission to handle.
A merger could make Tacoma the “industrial armpit of the Northwest,” charged one contender for Earley’s office.
Fumed another, “If a merger comes about, it will be the greatest rape of the wallets and pocketbooks of Pierce County residents.”
Lost in the storm clouds was the simple fact that, under present state law, residents of both Pierce County (Tacoma) and King County (Seattle) would have to approve a ports district merger before one could go into effect. No matter, even talking about such a prospect was a no-no, irate citizens determined.
Port of Tacoma executive director Richard Dale Smith said he was amazed at how so many persons expressed opposition to Seattle-Tacoma talks of any form, regardless of whether the merger question would have been included in those discussions.
“I don’t see any harm in sitting down and talking,” he told American Shipper. “I’m baffled by the concept of not being willing to talk.”
Conceding that a merger could be the ultimate step of cooperation but maintaining that Tacoma’s port people had not any intentions of discussing that issue initially, Smith said there are a number of areas in which the two ports could cooperate to the benefit of Tacoma as well as Seattle.
Short of full consolidation, Seattle and Tacoma ports could even joint-venture high-cost facilities, such as a container terminal or coal export facility, it was suggested. State law allows this to be done by two contiguous port districts.
The Port of Seattle’s executive director, Richard D. Ford, was disappointed that port cooperation talks were not allowed to get underway.
“I have no preconceived ideas on what should happen,” he said, referring to the merger. “But it seemed to me it would have been useful to talk about the full spectrum of possibilities, including merger at the far end of that spectrum.”
Ford said he would like to see less duplications of effort and a sharing of expenses with Tacoma on such activities as marketing, planning, environmental studies, and computerization.
Marketing is a concern
Marketing, in particular, is a concern of Ford’s. He noted that competition is getting keener with the other port regions, particularly with southern California’s financially well-to-do ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“The fact is that we’re competing with ports that are far bigger than we are,” Ford said. “The ports here [Seattle and Tacoma] are competing directly with California and to some extent with Gulf and East coast ports.”
An amalgamation of at least some marketing functions would have enabled Seattle and Tacoma to “penetrate a little more effectively than we can now and at less cost,” he said.
With the big blowup in Tacoma, that is not in the cards right now. Perhaps sometime in the future, formal means of cooperation between the two rival ports will be possible. Ford isn’t holding his breath.
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