The economic impact of port activity


The seaports of Seattle and Tacoma generate tens of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly from handling import and export cargos. If they can stay competitive and get the money needed for improved and expanded facilities, they will add thousands more to the count.

Or at least that’s what the studies, the ports’ elected commissioners and the marketing materials promise.

The Port of Seattle, for instance, has a goal of adding 100,000 jobs directly and indirectly to the region in the next 25 years. The Port of Tacoma has as one of its 10-year targets the goal of adding 4,700 direct jobs and 2,000 indirect jobs.

But what do those numbers actually count? Are those good returns on the money spent on the publicly owned ports? Does it matter to the overall economy if one port or the other grabs a preponderance of the business?

Those aren’t idle questions, because the answers are intricately tied to such public policy debates as land use along the Seattle waterfront and the amount of taxpayer subsidies spent on the seaports.

There are multiple challenges in parsing the numbers. For Seattle, the big issue is separating the impact of the airport. The Port of Seattle says Sea-Tac Airport generated 89,902 direct jobs, 12,884 indirect jobs and 35,584 induced jobs. By contrast, the seaport accounted for 21,695 direct jobs, 7,845 indirect jobs and 27,716 induced jobs. (Direct jobs include those with railroads and trucking companies, longshoremen, steamship agents, freight forwarders and stevedores, according to the narrative of one study. Indirect jobs are those created by companies doing port- or trade-related business for everything from office supplies to utilities. Induced jobs are those created by the spending of those directly employed in seaport-related activities.)

For both ports, the problem is that the data are old. Tacoma, which says more than 43,000 jobs in Pierce County are related to its port’s activities, relies on a 2005 study. The Port of Seattle’s numbers are from a study released in 2009 relying on 2007 data. Both ports say they’re working on updates. Another challenge is figuring out whether there’s any double counting going on. A truck driver shuttling containers between one of the Port of Seattle’s terminals and a rail yard or a warehouse is likely a job tied to a specific port. But if that container instead comes in via the Port of Tacoma, is that job lost to the region or does it just shift? And for someone working at the rail yard or warehouse, it may not matter much which port it comes in through, just so long as it lands somewhere in the Puget Sound region (hence, the assertion in the main story that the regional ports’ biggest competitors are everyone else, not each other).

Martin Associates, the firm that did economic-impact studies for both Seattle and Tacoma, acknowledges that shipping lines and shippers aren’t customers of one port to the exclusion of another. “In fact, the majority of these users currently use multiple ports for export and import, especially those moving containerized cargo,” Martin Associates’ report for the Port of Tacoma notes.

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