What exactly is The Port Of Seattle?

Let’s see what the Port Of Seattle web site has to say on the subject:

The Port of Seattle was chartered by the voters of King County as a port district by special election on September 5, 1911, as a special-purpose municipal corporation of the State of Washington.

The Port Of Seattle is also what is called in the trades a “limited use government”.  It is governed by Title 53 of the Revised Code Of Washington (RCW).

Structurally, the type of government the Port most resembles is actually a public utility like your Water District, which is also a special-purpose municipal corporation. But unlike other public utilities, it’s powers are truly awesome. Not like “that’s an awesome long board, dude.” I mean “awesome” in the sense of “inspiring awe”. If you look at RCW 53.08 (Definition Of Powers), the things the Port is able to do sometimes equal the power of a County or even State government and certainly far greater than any city. For example, the Port Of Seattle can make trade agreements with foreign governments. It can levy taxes. It can set tolls for certain roads. It can sell bonds. It has its own police force. In some cases it can even invoke eminent domain. About the only thing it can’t do that other governments can? Enact laws.

But for its purposes, the Port usually doesn’t find the inability to make law a serious impediment. It usually gets what it wants from the State or County because of its tremendous political influence. And from whence does that influence spring? From the fact that it is one of the biggest tax generators in the State Of Washington. Its ability to thrive is always near the top of other elected officials’ minds. So if the Port feels that a policy change at any level of government might in any way blunt its ability to generate revenues? It has the tools to aggressively remind lawmakers which side their bread is buttered on.

Yes, but it’s a Port, right?

Let’s see what the Port’s Commission Bylaws say:

Commissioners shall serve the public and the mission of the Port of Seattle as a public agency to create quality jobs throughout the diverse communities of King County by advancing trade and commerce, promoting industrial growth and stimulating economic development. Commissioners shall advance the port’s commitment to create economic opportunity for all, responsibly steward the environment, partner with surrounding communities, promote social responsibility, act transparently and remain accountable.

Notice anything missing from that primary mission statement? Like how there isn’t anything about being a ‘port’ or ‘managing shipping’, etc?

Quick History

The Port was created by a vote of King County because civic leaders thought that the docks of Seattle were chaotic, corrupt and just not bringing in enough money. They desperately wanted Seattle to an economic powerhouse and shipping was at the core of that strategy. They wanted Seattle to be the central focus of shipping on the west coast and felt that the way to achieve that goal was to have a central authority to manage the docks.

But as you can see from the mission statement, the goal was not to be a ‘port’ per se. The grand ambition was always ‘job growth and economic development’. Managing shipping and passengers was only the means to that end. And you need to understand this because this is at the core of why The Port Of Seattle has been so intransigent in dealing with airport communities.

The Mission

The Port Of Seattle’s mission is not ‘managing shipping and passengers’, The Port Of Seattle’s mission is economic development. It is an agency with a goal to create jobs and build things. This is actually what the Port Commission spends the majority of its time working on and it is no accident that the Port is involved in every major building project in the Puget Sound Region.

I know that seems a bit confusing, but think of it this way: If your primary mission is to be a ‘port’, you’re more like a public utility–you act simply to provide a service as people ask for it.

Consider your Water District, which is another type of municipal corporation, with powers similar to the Port, but obviously on a much smaller scale. It provides clean, safe water to its customers. What it doesn’t do? Encourage people to use more water. On the contrary, public utilities such as water districts and power companies actively encourage people to conserve resources. They’re not in the business of using more natural resources. Their job is simply to keep service flowing.

Now consider The Port Of Seattle. It’s primary goal, says it right at the top line of the Bylaws, is “to create quality jobs throughout the diverse communities of King County by advancing trade and commerce, promoting industrial growth and stimulating economic development.” Which sounds great except that it means that they are charged to constantly be looking for ways to increase their revenue stream so that they can carry out this mission. Get it? The Port Of Seattle has a fiduciary responsibility to keep finding more sources of revenue in order to carry out their mission.

And what are those sources of revenue? Eighty percent Aviation, twenty percent Maritime. Arguably two of the biggest polluting businesses in the State Of Washington.

Unlike other public utilities, The Port Of Seattle’s primary mission (job formation and economic development) depend on their encouraging more use of Sea-Tac Airport! They cannot think about adopting a more neutral or conservation-oriented approach to air travel without violating their oath of office. Commissioners have a fiduciary responsibility to keep increasing Port revenues. If a Commissioner were to advocate for holding the line on growth, in either aviation or marine, they would be subject to removal from office. No kidding.

This is not hyperbolic or rhetorical. This is a core belief of every Port Commissioner I have had the pleasure to meet since 1995.

Demand vs. targets

The Commissioners simply do not believe in a neutral or conservation approach to evaluating customer demand (like a Water District). So when you read their forecasts for future customer demand you should keep a very skeptical eye. Since the Port is not managing flights in a truly neutral way they aren’t really forecasting true ‘demand’. What they are actually doing is setting sales targets. They’re giving you their aspirations.

How do we know this? Simple: they get their forecasts from the airlines and the FAA! In other words, their forecasts for the number of flights is based on the sales targets of the airlines, not on truly independent research.

Plus, all airports actively compete for business. They set tenant rates in order to increase their share of operations and offer other amenities in order to maximize the airport’s revenue stream. When Delta moved its main hub to Sea-Tac Airport in 2012 it did so, at least in part, because it got a good deal from the Port Of Seattle. The Port Of Seattle wanted that business. The Port Of Seattle could have offered less generous terms, or shied away from the added capacity entirely. Why didn’t they? Because it was a lucrative deal and because nowhere in their calculations did they consider the effect of all those added flights on the surrounding communities—as a Water District or power company would be forced to do.


Also unlike a Water District, the Port’s taxing power is not of a single purpose. When you pay the meter reader for your water, you’re paying for them to pump clean, safe water. When you pay the Port Of Seattle’s General Levy, you’re essentially giving them a blank check.

For example, in 2018 the Port collected $73 million dollars in taxes from King County residents. And fifty five percent of that money went to pay off bonds that the Port had issued over the years to… get ready for it… finance the 99 Tunnel. Your tax dollarts made it cheaper for the Port to invest in a development project totally unrelated to airports or seaports. Again: they are an economic development organization.

…And aspiration

Finally, unlike any other municipal corporation, The Port annually runs dozens  of programs, costing millions of dollars that are meant for the general public good and which are totally unrelated to the functions of running a ‘port’. For example, they give tens of thousands of dollars every year to support shell fish and orcas in Puget Sound. They fund cleanup efforts in various neighborhoods. They were a substantial funder of the new Highline Historical Museum in Burien. They even engage in outreach to homeless people. These are all noble goals. However, they have nothing to do with managing an airport or a seaport. Over time Port leaders have added a wide range of ‘philanthropies’ to their mission simply because they can. And as wonderful as this work may seem, it is a mission-creep which has the consequence of making the rest of King County increasingly dependent on the Port for a whole range of needs. And that makes lawmakers even less willing to talk about reigning in its negative impacts on airport communities. As lawmakers will tell you, “The Port funds projects that my voters want!”

What we think

Understanding that the Port Of Seattle is not really a ‘port’ per sé (or like other municipal corporations for that matter) is key to understanding why the airport communities have been so unsuccessful at obtaining relief. The Port is, by its own bylaws, incapable of providing fairness to the airport communities because its primary mission is simply incompatible with protecting the environment and human health of surrounding cities. Again, that’s not hyperbolic or rhetorical. It’s just black and white.

Activists (and notably the Port) tend to focus on the limitations of FAA law as the reason airport communities are under siege but that is simply incorrect. It is true that the Port is able to get away with terribly unfair environmental practices because the environmental impacts of air traffic are not governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but rather by the FAA.

Regardless however, the real issue is that, unlike other municipal corporations, the Port’s primary charge is ‘growth’. Despite FAA rules governing the environment, the Port does have the ability to do much more to control the negative impacts of air travel. However ‘growth’ is the Port’s reason for being and its employees believe in that mission.  Ideas of ‘conservation’ and a neutral evaluation of customer demand have never been a part of the Port’s DNA.

Additionally, since the Port funds any number of good will projects throughout the county this creates perverse dis-incentives for lawmakers to want to discuss reigning in the Port’s environmental impacts. Too many stakeholders benefit from the Port’s programs for them to seriously consider impinging on the Port’s growth in any way.

So any strategy for obtaining relief based on ‘partnership’ or ‘dialogue’ is bound to be frustrating because the Port cannot, under their own bylaws, compromise on the one thing necessary to reducing noise and pollution: growth. It has done, and will continue to, happily ‘engage’ with the public until the cows come home. It does not desire conflict. But regardless of what activists may read into these dialogues, The Port cannot act in the way that activists wish. In other words, stop mistaking ‘dialogue’ for cooperation.

Our view is that the Port must reform its bylaws to reflect laws governing other how other types of corporations interact with their surrounding communities. Regard for the environment (which includes human health) must be placed on par with growth–as is legally required for other types of corporations governed by EPA rules. No proper relief can be obtained without that change in the Port’s essential mission. Activists should understand that such relief is only like to occur through some form of compulsion: either via legislation or through the courts.

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