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Originally published July 23, 2012 at 7:11 PM | Page modified July 24, 2012 at 11:58 AM

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Port lacks specifics in arena traffic worries

The Port of Seattle has complained that a new arena would create further traffic problems for trucks coming in and out of the waterfront, jeopardize expansion plans and threaten blue-collar jobs in the city. But the Port still lacks hard data to back up its concerns.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fascinating. They can't back anything up, so they spread the FUD. Just keep spreading... MORE
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The Port of Seattle's opposition to a proposed new arena in Sodo has been swift and detailed.

In letters and public statements, Port officials have said arena-related traffic would cause further congestion for trucks coming in and out of the waterfront, jeopardize the Port's expansion plans and threaten blue-collar jobs dependent on a thriving industrial zone in the city.

The Port's worries are one of the key issues being weighed by public officials preparing to vote on a $200 million public investment in the project.

What's missing, though, is hard data to back up those concerns.

Instead, the Port has relied on anecdotes and outdated traffic studies, and doesn't have detailed information on which routes freight trucks travel to and from the waterfront. The five limited traffic studies the Port has done since 2007 shed little light on the issues raised by the arena proposal.

Port officials may be overstating their warning that the arena would get in the way of their 25-year plan to create 100,000 new jobs. The number of jobs cited is more aspiration than plan, and most of those jobs would not be on the waterfront.

Port officials concede they don't have much data yet. They have hired a consultant to report back at the end of this month on which traffic studies are missing.

The suddenness of the arena proposal, first floated by San Francisco hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen in February, has put the Port on the defensive, spokesman Peter McGraw said.

"This idea that people are gathering all this data ... no one anticipated this would be crucial data," he said. "These people feel like the onus is on them to justify their existence."

The $3 billion maritime-industrial sector is a huge regional economic force, with a powerful constituency of businesses and unions. Port and business leaders fear arena developers want to turn Sodo into the next South Lake Union, squeezing its industrial character.

Those concerns have caught the attention of local officials.

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson said he won't support the arena agreement without an independent economic analysis. And July 17, the city and county sent a letter to the Port with a list of proposed transportation fixes.

The Port's main argument against a new arena is that arena traffic would further tangle freight routes on East Marginal Way, South Atlantic Street, First Avenue South and Alaskan Way, and make it harder for trucks to enter and exit the freeway.

A traffic study funded by Hansen this spring said the arena shouldn't affect Port traffic because Port gates close at 4:30 p.m.

The Port replied that, while the day shift ends at 4:30, the Port sometimes operates gates at night. Even when incoming gates close, loaded trucks can leave, and McGraw said gate hours vary based on demand.

Further, Port officials say they are concerned not only with current traffic but what will happen as it expands in the future.

To back up its arguments, the Port has used old and limited studies that its regional transportation manager, Geri Poor, said are "outdated."

To see where Port trucks commonly travel, the Port has relied on a University of Washington study that put GPS tracking devices on 11 trucks for four to six weeks in 2011.

The study, interpreted by students, includes this disclaimer: "The frequency of data reads was not ideal for analyzing street-level travel patterns on the urbanized road network or for identifying bottlenecks." And Poor acknowledged the study is mostly useful to see whether GPS would be a good tool for the Port in future studies.

Still, the report's conclusions were included in Port presentations this summer on the arena question.

Port officials also have been citing a 2003 study that predicts 2015 traffic patterns. But there never has been a follow-up study to see how those predictions align with reality today.

A third study, done in 2008, looked at the impact of 2,000 truck trips in and out of a terminal that Port officials wanted to reactivate. They determined the additional traffic for that project would not adversely affect operation on an average day until at least the year 2030.

Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton said the use of old and incomplete studies is "a fair criticism."

In the meantime, Port officials are having to rely on data prepared by the state for the Highway 99 viaduct replacement, which they acknowledge isn't the best tool for assessing the impact of the arena. But Poor added that the Port didn't further study problem intersections because daily traffic congestion is already self-evident.

When Port officials raise concerns about the arena, they mention their Century Agenda, which calls for the creation of 100,000 jobs and a two-thirds increase in container traffic by 2037, to 3.5 million 20-foot containers.

A new arena would jeopardize that growth, they say.

Port commissioners selected the 100,000-jobs goal after nine "working groups," where they studied population forecasts and past growth, but not market share or international competition.

The number, Tarleton said, is not technical, but "aspirational."

"Why shouldn't we reach?" she said.

The 25-year goals are far less ambitious than previous estimates. In 2008, officials published growth projections for planning purposes that said the Port would handle 3.5 million containers by 2020. By 2040, the numbers projected more containers than the ports of Seattle and Tacoma combined.

Port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs said those numbers were only a theoretical example of the "wildest possible best success."

"There's just been this tendency to throw out these numbers that look like they came from a sophisticated analysis," said regional economist Dick Conway, who testified recently about the arena before the Metropolitan King County Council.

Most of the 100,000 new jobs cited in the strategic plan would be tied to growth at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, not on the waterfront, McGraw.

The number, Tarleton said, is based on the percentage of people who work in the trade industry in Seattle, and population growth estimates.

While the Port has published a flier with general explanations of how it will achieve its goal, specifics are scarce.

There is no data to show the Port can attract more ships in the next 25 years. In the past 10 years, its container volume has risen and fallen with the economy. Last month, a consortium of shipping companies moved its business to Tacoma, taking 20 percent of the seaport's business.

More challenges are on the horizon. Competition is increasing from British Columbia and other West Coast ports, and a widening Panama Canal will make it easier for ships from Asia to go directly to East Coast ports.

"With all the problems that the Port has," Conway said, "I'm surprised that the arena is on the top of the list. I think it should be at the bottom of the list."

Tarleton bristled at Conway's remarks, saying they came from "a position of ignorance."

"The Port is worried about a lot of things right now," she said. "He just does not know."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246

or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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