The four candidates vying for two open seats on Seattle’s Port Commission have a lot in common.
All describe themselves as ardent conservationists, anxious to reduce the Port’s carbon footprint, especially around cruising. They hope to tackle long lines and traffic at the airport. They want to address concerns about airplane noise.
And they pledge to continue to improve transparency and accountability at the Port, which has the power to levy small tax increases without voter approval and is spending $1.4 billion this year.
Only one of the races is competitive: Vying for Position 2, former Bellevue mayor and city councilmember Grant Degginger is facing off against relative newcomer Sam Cho, the owner of an export business and a former legislative assistant to State Sen. Bob Hasegawa.
With 31% of the August primary vote, Cho edged out Degginger, who received 25%. The rest was divided among five candidates knocked out in the primaries, meaning the current front-runner is anyone’s guess. Cho and Degginger have each raised about $115,000.
The biggest difference between the two candidates may be who backs them.
If elected, Cho would be the only non-white commissioner. He’s never held elected office, but his focus on expanding opportunities for minority-owned businesses has won him support from the Asian American community, Port unions and The Stranger, as well as a roster of state politicians including former Gov. Gary Locke.
Degginger’s backers include Alaska Air Group and Delta Air Lines, which operate 75% of flights at Sea-Tac, and stevedoring company SSA Marine, which leases almost all of Seattle’s marine cargo terminals. He’s also received the support of The Seattle Times editorial board, King County Executive Dow Constantine and former Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani.
On the nitty-gritty of how to turn their platforms into policy, Cho and Degginger are largely aligned.
Take flight noise. The Port claims the flight noise footprint directly around Sea-Tac has shrunk as airplanes have grown quieter. But the volume of flights has increased by 30% between 2013 and 2018, and more planes are going over neighborhoods like Shoreline and Beacon Hill than at any point since 2000.
Cho says the Port should ask the FAA to change flight paths, make sure planes aren’t flying at low altitudes for as long and increase the glide slope, the angle at which planes land. Degginger also wants to change the glide slope and reduce the number of cargo aircraft flying at night. And he says the Port should invest more heavily in a program that installs noise insulation in older homes affected by flight noise.
As airport traffic at Sea-Tac increased, the FAA said it would route more planes over Elliott Bay to reduce noise pollution. It hasn’t fully done that, though last month, the FAA agreed to limit the number of planes flying in the early morning and make changes to runway use that the Port hopes will limit noise for some residents. Meanwhile, houses built before the mid-1980s are eligible for one-time relief through the noise insulation program. Homes built later are required to adhere to stronger insulation standards.
When it comes to airport congestion, the candidates are aligned in wanting to implement remote check-in, so travelers could drop their bags at transit centers in Bellevue and Seattle hours or days before their flights. They say this will make it easier for people to use light rail to get to Sea-Tac.
The cruise terminals already have such a system. A Port audit found it’s losing money, though backers say it’s done a good job reducing congestion.
“That doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and made to work,” said Degginger.
To fight climate change, Cho says it should be mandatory for cruise ships to hook up to shore power when they’re berthed. That means the generally diesel-powered vessels would run off the electric grid when they’re in Elliott Bay, reducing emissions by 80%.
Right now, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions in Elliott Bay come from cruise lines, the Port reported in 2017.
Two of the Port’s three cruise ship berths are equipped with shore power hookups, but only half the cruise vessels that call at those berths are able to plug in to shore power. Even when vessels are able to hook up to shore power, not all do.
“Cruise lines need to start retrofitting their boats,” Cho said.
Degginger says it only makes sense to require ships to hook up to onshore power when the Port has the capability to offer it at all berths.
In an Oct. 9 public forum, candidates didn’t directly address how they plan to engage with what’s arguably the biggest task facing the commission, pushing forward a $6 billion roster of Sea-Tac improvements called the Sustainable Airport Master Plan.
An airport project already underway, a new, expanded International Arrivals Facility, is already one year behind schedule and $400 million over budget.
Degginger says that he has the experience needed to bring Port contracting in line. As a Bellevue City Councilmember from 2000 to 2012, he was involved in replacing the SR-520 bridge and bringing the future Light Rail line to the city.
The outcome of the race for Position 5 isn’t expected to surprise. In the August primary, incumbent Fred Felleman handily beat challenger Garth Jacobson, former chief legal counsel to Montana’s Secretary of State, with 72% of the vote.
Felleman has positioned himself as the commission’s chief advocate for environmental sustainability. But Jacobson has critiqued him for not critiquing the port’s plans to build a new cruise ship berth on Terminal 46, despite concerns over the vessels’ emissions. Felleman said that’s missing the point.
“We’re in the business to employ people on the port,” he said. “It’s either that, or you have condominiums on the waterfront.”
Felleman and Cho have said they’d like Port Commissioner to be a full-time position, with a full-time salary (it’s currently part-time, and commissioners make around $50,000 a year).
Jacobson has also railed against the decision to turn the formerly disused Terminal 5 into berths for large cargo vessels: Voters, he said, weren’t given adequate opportunity to voice their displeasure with the taxes levied in part to fund improvements at the terminal.
“The sad reality is that most of the deals are cut and very few people are aware of them,” he said.
Port Commission races
Name: Sam Cho
Endorsements: Port unions, former Gov. Gary Locke and The Stranger
Name: Grant Degginger
Endorsements: Business interests, former Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani and The Seattle Times Editorial Board
Name: Fred Felleman
Occupation: Environmental consultant
Endorsements: Local elected officials, Port unions, conservation groups and The Seattle Times Editorial Board
Name: Garth Jacobson