Seattle Times: Taxpayers need transparency for big investments in Port of Seattle

Article Summary:

The Port of Seattle wants a tax increase to help fund a new cruise-ship terminal, but it’s not saying where it will be built.

Taxpayers in King County are facing a tax increase to fund investments in Seattle’s industrial waterfront, potentially including a new cruise-ship terminal near Pioneer Square.

The investments should be worthwhile as long as they’re used to preserve and expand maritime-industrial jobs. The tax increase is negligible, especially compared to other hits taxpayers are taking lately.

Even so, it’s disappointing that the Port of Seattle is pushing through this costly and far-reaching plan with little time for public discussion. It’s also providing scant details of the cruise-ship terminal, a major new public facility that would receive a large share of the tax increase.
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The port publicly discussed the levy plan just before Thanksgiving, at a Nov. 13 meeting. It plans to approve the levy as part of its 2019 budget on Nov. 27. Digesting it all is harder than a third helping of turkey and pie, but King County residents should be aware of what’s happening.
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Proposed is a 3 percent annual levy increase for the next five years. A median-valued home ($509,000 in 2018 and $570,000 in 2019) paid $69 in port taxes this year, the port estimates. They would pay an additional $1.39 in 2019. In 2023, their port tax would be an estimated $79, up $10 over the current level.

Port commissioners last increased the levy in 2008 and voted to lower the rate in 2015.
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Given Seattle’s zany and hyperbolic political climate, it’s not surprising the port would fast-track a sensitive budget. But public involvement is still essential. It’s also an opportunity to build support for infrastructure providing family-wage, blue-collar jobs.

Public support for job-sustaining industrial zones will be especially needed as the port, Seattle and Sound Transit negotiate light-rail extensions near industrial areas at Fisherman’s Terminal, Interbay and Harbor Island.

Maximum transparency is also necessary to build trust in the port and its commission, especially after its 2017 payroll fiasco and huge cost overruns on Seattle-Tacoma International Airport terminal construction. Airport projects are mostly funded with revenue generated by the airport, not the levy.

The largest share of the levy now goes to paying off bonds, including money borrowed to help fund the Alaskan Way tunnel project. At the current tax rate, there aren’t enough levy proceeds left to fully fund a $683 million list of non-airport projects the port is planning over the next five years.

Topping the list is the $340 million renovation of Terminal 5, near West Seattle, to accommodate mega-size container ships. Construction should begin in 2019 and may lead to shuffling and consolidation of cargo operations around Seattle’s harbor.

Simultaneously, the port is planning a $200 million cruise-ship facility, the fourth such berth on Elliott Bay. The port would split the cost with tenants.

Maddeningly, the port isn’t saying where this facility would be located, beyond that it’s likely to co-locate with cargo operations at Terminal 46, 30 or 25. Terminal 46 is the obvious choice since it’s near Pioneer Square and the stadiums, though it’s also in an area facing major congestion after the viaduct goes. A cruise terminal there could also be used off-season as an event venue.

Other projects to be funded with the levy include upgrades to Terminal 91 near the Magnolia Bridge, a new “innovation center” to incubate new maritime businesses at Fisherman’s Terminal and new shore-power systems for ships.

Preserving and expanding Seattle’s precious maritime industrial lands is critical. Despite current tariff disputes, trade and maritime industries should continue providing growth and opportunity for generations.

Investments are needed to maintain Seattle’s competitiveness and sustain its diversified economy, especially if they can be done at minimal cost to taxpayers.

Support would be greater, however, if the public had more time to engage and learn about this important work that it’s funding.