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Originally published March 30, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified April 10, 2013 at 12:42 PM

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What new port commissioners need to know

Special to The Seattle Times

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The Port of Seattle is about to have two new commissioners on its five-member board. Courtney Gregoire, a Microsoft lawyer and daughter of the former governor, was named earlier this month. The second will come by early May from seven finalists announced last week.

I’ve been learning about the Port during the five years of writing this column. I’m still learning, but here’s one observer’s primer for new commissioners.

About the job:

Far from being a dirt-dull bundle of endless meetings or a steppingstone to higher office, Port commissioners occupy potentially the most important elective economic-development jobs in the region.

But you’re there to set policy, not run Seattle-Tacoma International Airport or the seaport. Tay Yoshitani, the chief executive officer who works for you, is over day-to-day operations and responsible for implementing those policies.

Respect those roles, or, as the police say about so-called incident command, “stay in your lane.” When commissioners don’t, chaos results because staff members don’t know which boss to follow. Replace the CEO if you don’t like his work. If you trust him, then support him and let him lead the staff.

The Port is blessed with professionals who know more about seaports and airports than you probably ever will. Many are world-class experts in their fields. They also know history and context, which are essential tools for policymakers. Be curious. Learn from them as well as from your fellow commissioners. And study best practices elsewhere.

It can be frustrating to hear “that’s not how we do it” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” But balance that with a willingness to listen and not attempt to re-dig a hole that went nowhere.

Remember, you are most likely not the first person to have an idea about something the Port should do. It’s worthwhile to investigate why it didn’t stick last time, assess if circumstances have changed and then decide whether it’s worth another attempt. If they haven’t changed, move on.

Don’t campaign for more staffers reporting directly to you. Parallel functions are inefficient, confusing and wasteful. Do discuss concerns about staff performance with the CEO. The Port, like all organizations, has its share of inefficient bureaucracy and lacking-but-inexplicably-protected managers.

The Port needs commissioners who can convincingly explain and advocate its importance to a community that only sees the sexy software side of Seattle. And ones that can be effective partners with the private and public sector, including Olympia.

You’re fortunate to be on a Port commission, with specified authority and the beauty of being able to say no to things outside that jurisdiction. Focus on generating good jobs at the airport and seaport, as well as managing a real-estate portfolio for the public good. Period.

About the operations:

The seaport gets much attention, but Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is also vital to the Port of Seattle’s viability. The airport generates the majority of the organization’s revenue. As Jack Nicholson’s character says in “The Departed:” “Act accordingly.”

That said, the seaport remains a major economic asset and is facing serious challenges.

Many shouldn’t be a surprise: The loss of about 20 percent of the container business to Tacoma; a wider Panama Canal opening in 2015 that will allow big ships from Asia to bypass the West Coast; much larger container ships; and the rising threat of the container port at Prince Rupert, B.C., with its direct railroad link to the American heartland.

This is the state of play whether a Sonics arena is built in Sodo or not. If it is, the Port needs infrastructure upgrades promised years ago to improve truck access. If that doesn’t happen, the seaport may well begin an irrevocable decline.

I’ve never believed the arena and health of the Port are mutually exclusive. Smart people disagree with me. But the road access must be improved.

Speaking of infrastructure, it’s critical to move ahead with the Puget Sound Gateway Project, a series of highway improvements that would enhance truck access to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, as well as to Sea-Tac Airport. Many surface streets serving the logistics districts need repair, too.

This multiyear project will require funding from many sources and require approval from the Legislature.

Port commissioners alone could allow the seaport to once again gain access to tax-levy dollars for capital investments. At present, the seaport is supposed to use revenues (revenue bonds), which puts it at a pricing disadvantage with competitors that are investing heavily.

You should feel a sense of urgency. Seattle’s rivals are not shying away from using tax dollars. Their logic is a dollar invested in trade and shipping will yield much more than a dollar in return.

Earlier this month, work began on an $88.6 million road, rail and utility corridor at Prince Rupert, the start of a port expansion that will total $295 million. It’s part of a $24.6 billion public-private partnership by British Columbia to enhance its trading position with Asia by focusing on its transportation infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the Port of Los Angeles is moving forward with a half-billion-dollar rail yard, part of a series of investments being made in L.A. and Long Beach in anticipation of the wider, deeper Panama Canal.

Finally, the new commissioners will face the continued toxic rivalry between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, even as overall market share for the Puget Sound is falling.

Perhaps you can help find the key to at least make the competition build business overall.

Next, you can help preparations for the effects of climate change on the maritime industry.

I don’t know which of the two will be tougher.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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