Washington Public Port Districts -- Part 2

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/30/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9495

Washington's publicly owned and managed port districts operate huge container shipping terminals, small-boat marinas, and rural boat launches. They run major international airports, small general aviation airfields, and railroad lines. They develop and operate industrial areas and business parks. Public ports provide waterfront access and recreational facilities and many have taken a lead role in protecting and restoring the environment. Washington's first public ports were created in 1911 and there are now 75 port districts in the state. Part 2 of this two-part essay covers the history of the state's ports from the post-World War II years into the twenty-first century.

After World War II ended in 1945, Washington's ports, like the rest of the state and nation, faced a rocky transition back to a civilian economy. With the massive war mobilization over, waterfront manufacturing declined sharply. Worse, rather than rebounding after the war, civilian maritime trade fell sharply, due in part to increasing competition from the rapidly growing trucking industry and expanded rail services.  The Port of Tacoma responded to the downturn by successfully renewing its efforts to attract manufacturers to the Industrial Development District it had established just before the U.S. entered the war. For the Port of Seattle, continually growing Sea-Tac Airport provided the major bright spot, while the seaport, despite some major acquisition and expansion projects, largely stagnated in the 15 years following the war.

Expanding the Economy

Despite their temporary struggles, existing ports had more than proven their worth as drivers of economic development and when the post-war economy began to grow, more areas sought to establish ports of their own.  The Port of Wind River (later consolidated into the Port of Skamania County) was formed in 1946.  Several communities turned to port districts as a means of diversifying from traditional natural-resource-based economies that were starting to decline.  Business leaders in Shelton successfully advocated creation of the Port of Shelton in 1948 to expand the area's timber-dominated industrial base (and to cushion the economic blow resulting from post-war closure of the Navy's Shelton air base -- initially turned over to Mason County, the airport would eventually be operated by the Port).  On San Juan Island voters created the Port of Friday Harbor in 1950 to bring in tourists (who would become the island's economic mainstay) by building a marina to attract boaters.  Sometimes the motivation was maintaining control of the local waterfront economy and development -- Edmonds-area residents overwhelmingly approved creation of the Port of Edmonds in December 1948 amid concern that the Port of Everett was looking to expand into the Edmonds area. 

Four more port districts formed in the early 1950s. The Port of Poulsbo in Kitsap County and the Port of Chinook in Pacific County were both established in 1951. The next year, the Port of Hoodsport was formed in Mason County. Also in 1952, Columbia River dam construction spurred creation of the Port of Walla Walla for two reasons: as elsewhere along the river system, the new dams made barge ports possible, but also the water rising behind McNary Dam was going to flood most existing industrial land in western Walla Walla County and civic leaders looked to the port to develop new industrial sites along the McNary Dam pool. 

In 1955, the state Legislature significantly expanded port districts' powers to create Industrial Development Districts, removing limitations on the use of eminent domain and allowing ports to use local improvement bonds to fund development districts. As is often the case, the legislation was prompted by concerns arising in Seattle but ended up having significant impacts statewide. Following the war, business boomed at Boeing but there was little increase in other manufacturing activity. As the state Supreme Court explained, there was "growing concern among civic leaders and public officials over the imbalance of industrial employment in the Seattle area" as it became "apparent that Seattle was increasingly becoming a one-industry town" (Hogue).

Those civic leaders and officials turned to the Port of Seattle to broaden and strengthen the city's industrial base, identifying the lower Duwamish River as the best site for industrial development, and winning passage of the 1955 law to allow the Port to condemn the necessary property along the river.  Ironically, in the 1959 decision Hogue v. Port of Seattle, the Supreme Court invalidated the condemnation provision of the new law as applied to the project that inspired it, holding that the state constitution prohibited taking existing agricultural and residential properties along the Duwamish to turn them over to new private owners for industrial use (a constitutional amendment would later substantially modify that holding and a scaled-back Duwamish district was eventually developed).

Ports Without Water

Despite the setback for the Duwamish plan, ports around the state successfully used their expanded industrial development powers to attract new industries and jobs.  Over the next decade many Eastern Washington communities that had no waterways of significance and no need for harbor facilities formed ports anyway, because of port districts' leading role in industrial development. In the 1950s and 1960s, American industry was expanding, and communities and regions competed to bring factories to their areas. Eastern Washington had lots of land and, thanks to the Columbia Basin dams, plenty of electricity.  But that land needed infrastructure -- power and water lines, sewers, roads, buildings, and more -- which often required larger investments than private companies were able or willing to make.  

Public port districts had the authority, funds, and long-range time frame that allowed them to invest in industrial development projects, and Eastern Washington wanted in on the action. Kittitas County voters created the Port of Kittitas in 1956 (it was dissolved in 1973). In 1958, 12 port districts came into being, more than have been created in any other single year. Only two were formed in western Washington, each for a single specific purpose. On Orcas Island in the San Juans, the Port of Orcas was organized to take over and run the faltering privately owned Orcas Island Airport. And on the broad estuary near the mouth of the Columbia River the Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1 was established to develop and run a moorage basin and marina at Cathlamet. The other 10 new ports were east of the mountains. The ports of Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Garfield, and Whitman in the counties of the same names, Clarkston in Asotin County, and Mattawa, Quincy, and Royal Slope in Grant County all developed industrial areas and became leading economic development agencies in their communities.

They did so using the same basic procedure that many other port districts would also employ: acquire and prepare an industrial site, attract a business to occupy it, and use the resulting revenue to develop more sites, creating a cycle of increasing jobs and growth. Some of the new Eastern Washington ports also undertook other efforts -- Benton, Clarkston, Garfield, and Whitman provided barge terminals on the Snake River, and various ports developed and operated airports, marinas, and other facilities. But for several of the new ports, industrial site preparation was the sole function. 

In 1959, to ensure that all communities, wherever located, could avail themselves of the economic development benefits provided by public ports, the Legislature amended the Port District Act to expressly state that port districts, with all the legal powers of any other port, could also be created "in areas which lack appropriate bodies of water so that harbor improvements cannot be established" (RCW Title 53).  Eight more ports followed over the next two years. Six were in Eastern Washington: the ports of Coulee City, Grand Coulee, Hartline, Warden, and Wilson Creek in Grant County, and Kahlotus in Franklin County. Woodland became the third port district in Cowlitz County and Whidbey Island voters created the Port of Langley (which later expanded to cover the entire southern portion of the island and was renamed the Port of South Whidbey).

The Box Arrives

For most larger established ports, maritime shipping remained the centerpiece of their endeavors, and as the 1960s began, international trade was finally lifting out of the post-war doldrums.  Europe and Japan had recovered from the wartime devastation and many so-called "Third World" countries, especially in Asia, were developing rapidly.  At the same time, two innovations were revolutionizing shipping.  Bulk ships carrying large cargos of loose material like grain or ore could now be loaded and unloaded by large hoses that sucked or blew the material from ship hold to storage area or vice versa.  Even more dramatically, stackable containers -- large metal boxes (20 or 40 feet long) -- could be loaded at the factory or warehouse, hauled by truck or train to the dock, and lifted aboard ship by huge cranes, making cargo transportation far more efficient and contributing to the rapid growth in international trade.

Containerization would completely transform the maritime shipping industry, but getting started as a container port required large initial investments in the containers, cranes, and other equipment. Ports that were then doing well, like Portland, were reluctant to make those large and potentially risky investments. The Port of Seattle, whose continuing stagnation had sparked TV exposés, outside investigations, and legislative hearings, had less to lose.  A re-structuring that included an enlarged five-member port commission elected at-large rather than by districts, and a big voter-approved bond issue put the port in position to embrace containerization with a major building program that spurred two decades of rapid growth in shipping. 

Other Washington ports followed Seattle into the container business. The Port of Tacoma installed its first container crane in 1970, and Vancouver, Everett, and other deepwater ports also developed container facilities.  In 1976, the Port of Pasco inaugurated the first container terminal above Columbia River dams, largely to export local products from the region. 

Throughout the state, shipments of breakbulk (items too large for containers) and bulk cargos also grew, including log and grain exports and automobile, heavy equipment, and ore imports. From the early 1960s through the 1980s maritime trade at Washington ports in general rose at a rate much faster than the national average.

Ports and Politics

One result of port districts' central role in economic development, the growing importance of maritime trade, and the continuing rise of commercial aviation was the increasing political prominence of the state's public ports.  Since at least the 1930s, some state port officials had met once or twice a year as the Washington State Public Ports Authorities Association, but the group had no permanent staff or office. By 1961, commissioners from many ports concluded that they should have a formal, permanent association to represent port districts' interests in Olympia, and they won legislative approval to establish the Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) to do that. WPPA's founding members were 24 of the 60 or so ports then in existence (it now includes 69 of the state's 75 port districts).

One of WPPA's first and most significant accomplishments was the successful effort to enact a state constitutional amendment to undo the effect of two state Supreme Court decisions -- the 1959 Hogue decision that restricted the use of condemnation to create industrial development districts and a 1965 ruling that prevented ports from engaging in "promotional hosting." The promotional hosting issue arose from port districts' dual public enterprise nature. As business entities engaged in competition with other (private) businesses, port officials, like their private counterparts, frequently wooed potential customers like shipping executives by treating them to meals, drinks, outings, and other entertainment. But as units of government ports were bound by a state constitutional provision -- designed to deter corruption and special dealing -- that strictly prohibits the gift or loan of public funds to private individuals or corporations. In its 1965 decision the Supreme Court upheld the claim of state Attorney General John J. O'Connell (1919-1998) that port spending on promotional hosting violated this provision.

Soon after the court announced the O'Connell decision, prominent Seattle attorney Robert W. Graham (1915-1990), who frequently represented ports, and Richard D. Ford (1930-2013), then WPPA director (and later head of the Port of Seattle), drafted a proposed constitutional amendment to undo that decision, by stating that promotional hosting by ports was not a gift of public funds. For good measure, their proposed amendment also overcame the earlier Hogue decision by declaring that industrial development by ports was a public purpose, thus allowing ports to use eminent domain to acquire land that would eventually be turned over to private industry.  Port commissioners and officials convinced the 1965 legislature to place the proposed amendment on the November 1966 ballot and then led a successful campaign for its passage.

Parks and Airports

In addition to sending the constitutional amendment to voters, the 1965 legislature approved a further extension of port districts' powers, expressly authorizing them to construct and maintain parks and recreational areas related to their air, land, and water terminals, waterways, and other facilities. Providing public access to the shoreline and water in the form of docks and marinas had long been an important function of ports, but the new law made clear that purely recreational facilities were included in ports' mission. 

Within a year, voters in the Skamokawa area created the Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2, in the west end of the county, which would develop and operate a riverfront park providing recreational access to the Columbia River. Wahkiakum County's second port district was one of nine established between 1964 and 1968 in the final large wave of port creation. Others formed then included the ports of Skamania County (formed by the consolidation of the existing ports of Wind River and North Bonneville), Skagit County, Sunnyside in Yakima County, Othello in Adams County, Coupeville in Island County, and Lopez in San Juan County.

Two of the nine were in Grant County, bringing its total to 10 (second in the state behind Kitsap County). The ports of Moses Lake and Ephrata were each formed to take over former military air bases. When the Air Force announced plans to close Larson Air Force Base near Moses Lake, costing the region a major source of jobs and income, local leaders called for the formation of a port district to run the base airport, among the country's largest in size. The plan worked. The Port of Moses Lake developed Grant County International Airport into a flight training facility used by Boeing and many airlines, using the revenue to finance business and industrial development.  Originally proponents intended to include the Ephrata area within the Port of Moses Lake, but residents there preferred to have their own district.  They created the Port of Ephrata, which developed the Ephrata Municipal Airport and an industrial park at the site of another former military facility, the World War II-era Ephrata Army Air Base.

Responding to Environmental Concerns

Ports, like all government agencies and private businesses, were affected and ultimately transformed by the rise of the environmental movement beginning in the 1960s. In response to growing citizen concern, the U.S. Congress and state legislatures passed landmark new laws that limited pollution, mandated environmental studies in advance of new projects, required clean-up of toxic contamination, and restricted development in some environmentally sensitive areas.  Washington ports were particularly impacted by and involved with the Shoreline Management Act (SMA) approved by Washington voters in 1971, which strictly limited new development along the state's fresh and salt water shorelines. When the Washington Environmental Council proposed the SMA as an initiative, port districts, working through WPPA, helped convince Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) to offer an alternative initiative, which gave water-dependent commercial and industrial uses equal priority with shoreline conservation, and voters chose the alternative measure. 

Even as passed, the SMA, along with other new laws, required significant changes in how ports -- like all other segments of society -- managed their operations.  And compliance with new regulations was only part of the battle. Ports also faced increasing pressure from environmental activists on scores of issues, ranging from noise at Sea-Tac Airport to opposition to log exports.

For a time, most port officials continued to see their role as promoting trade and economic development, while viewing environmental protection as the domain of other agencies and interest groups.  But as environmental issues became increasingly central in all aspects of society, ports began taking more of a leadership role and emphasizing that role to their constituents. A 1992 survey of port-district activity over the previous five years touted numerous projects, and millions of dollars in expenditures, in which ports created or preserved critical shoreline habitat, reduced pollution run-off, cleaned up contaminated shorelines, and provided public waterfront access. 

Ports were well-suited to deal with some of the more intractable environmental problems facing the state.  By their nature, older seaports in particular had acquired (and often altered) substantial acreage of shorelines, wetlands, and other environmentally important areas, often in the very areas where pollution was greatest over the years.  In addition, the same public enterprise character that made ports particularly suited to large-scale economic development allowed them to take on major cleanup efforts.  Not bound by the bottom-line need for immediate profit like private companies, but more nimble and entrepreneurial than other government agencies, ports could acquire and prepare contaminated properties for restoration and environmentally sensitive future development that might take decades.

The Newest Ports

As they grappled with environmental issues, ports continued to develop and maintain transportation facilities. The only port district created in the 1970s was formed specifically to preserve a key piece of local transportation infrastructure. Pend Oreille County voters established the Port of Pend Oreille to take over operation of a railroad line between Metaline Falls and Newport after the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad announced plans to shut down the line, whose closure would have put two large employers out of business.

Three more ports were created in the 1980s, the latest formed to date. In 1986, Lewis County became the latest in the state to have a port district as voters there established the separate ports of Centralia and Chehalis to encourage industrial development in their communities. (A proposal to form a third Lewis County port, in the Winlock/Toledo area, was defeated in the same election.) The state's newest port, the Port of Grandview in Yakima County, was created in 1988, also to develop industrial and business property. Other communities decided not to create port districts.  In 1982, voters turned down proposals to establish ports in Spokane and Stevens counties. In 2010, those two counties, along with Kittitas (whose port was dissolved in 1973), Ferry, Lincoln, and Okanogan were the only ones in Washington with no port district.

As the state's existing ports grew, at times in competition with one another, suggestions for creating regional ports and/or a state port authority were frequently put forward.  Discussions about the possibility of combining ports date back at least to the early 1960s. Such proposals often focused on the state's two largest, Seattle and Tacoma, but not always. In 1977, the Cowlitz County ports of Kalama and Woodland submitted the question of whether they should merge to their respective voters -- Woodland voters approved but those in Kalama did not and the ports remain independent.

So do the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, notwithstanding many efforts in the Legislature over the years to combine their operations in one way or another.  Calls for union frequently came from Seattle-area political and civic leaders when the Port of Tacoma succeeded in winning major customers from its larger rival -- in 1976, when Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a leading shipper to Alaska, moved operations from Seattle to Tacoma and especially in 1982, when Sea-Land, the giant container line that was then Seattle's largest shipping tenant, announced its move to Tacoma.  

Although the Legislature has consistently declined to change the current system of local port control, it has called for greater cooperation and coordination among port districts and they have responded. Washington ports have worked together to promote the state's international trade capacity and market the region's products abroad, to address pollution and other environmental issues, and on transportation infrastructure and port security.  In 2008, the Tacoma and Seattle port commissions instituted the practice of holding joint commissioner study sessions.

One Hundred Years of Public Ports

One hundred years ago, public port districts were a novel and radical concept; now they are an established part of Washington's economy and society, providing essential services and generating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the state.  The creation of publicly run deepwater ports in the 1910s and 1920s wrested control of the state's commercial waterfront from railroad corporations and began developing the facilities that have made Washington a leader in international trade. Later, after dams transformed the Columbia and Snake rivers into a barge waterway system, Eastern Washington ports also developed major marine terminals for the region's exports.  As a result, Washington, with only 2 percent of the nation's population, has become the fourth largest exporting state in the United States. Passing through Washington ports are 7 percent of U.S. exports (and 6 percent of imports).  The state's two largest ports, Seattle and Tacoma, together make up the country's third largest container load center (trailing only Los Angeles/Long Beach and New York/New Jersey). 

But as their history makes clear, Washington's ports are much more than marine terminals.  Port-run airports, starting with Sea-Tac (whose economic impact far exceeds that of any state seaport), also provide essential transportation facilities and generate jobs.  Many state airports exist today because ports stepped in to run them when the military or private owners were going to close them down.  Beyond transportation, port districts have led economic growth in their regions by undertaking industrial or commercial development that has attracted leading businesses.  Ports have also provided a wide range of recreational and public access facilities, from docks and marinas to viewing towers to waterfront parks, while playing an increasingly important role in reducing environmental degradation and restoring previously impacted areas. Without its public ports, Washington would be a very different place.

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


Washington State Public Port Districts (Seattle: League of Women Voters of Washington, 1989); Washington State Public Port Districts: Governance Issues (Seattle: League of Women Voters of Washington, 1992); David J. Olson, "Public Port Accountability," in Urban ports and Harbor Management ed. by Marc J. Hershman (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1988); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Press, 1998), 22-24, 40-51; Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); Special Report: Washington's Public Ports (Olympia: Washington Research Council, 1990); "Port Districts," Puget Sound Business Journal, May 1-7, 1992, p. 30; 2010 Port Directory (Olympia: Washington Public Ports Association, 2010); Commissioner Resource Guide (Olympia: Washington Public Ports Association, 2010); Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) website accessed June 15, 2010 (http://www.washingtonports.org/); Amy C. Allison and Jerold W. Heller, "History and Evolution of Port Districts," WPPA website accessed June 15, 2010 (washingtonports.org/member_resources/events/cleallisonheller.ppt); Robin Torner, "The Public Port Concept and Its Contribution to the Economic Development of Washington," typescript dated 1993, Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) files, Olympia; "Washington Public Ports: Environmentally, We're More Than You Think," undated brochure (ca. 1992), WPPA files; Richard D. Ford, "WPPA -- 30 Years in a Changing World," typescript dated December 5, 1991, WPPA files; "Legislative History: Public Ports of Washington," Washington Senate Transportation Committee memorandum dated September 14, 1982, WPPA files; Richard L. Settle, Washington Land Use and Environmental Law and Practice (Seattle: Butterworth Legal Publishers, 1983), 130-31; RCW (Revised Code of Washington) Title 53 (Port Districts); Hogue v. Port of Seattle, 54 Wn.2d 799, 341 P.2d 171 (1959); State ex rel. O'Connell v. Port of Seattle, 65 Wn.2d 801, 399 P.2d 623 (1965); Appeal of Chiyoda Chemical Engineering and Const. Co., Ltd., 35 Wn.App. 785, 670 P.2d 663 (1983). 
Note: This essay was revised and corrected on March 9, 2011, and updated on May 15, 2013.

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