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The view of the Coast Guard’s icebreakers at their home port in Seattle, with T-Mobile Park in the background. (Greg Scruggs Photo)

For a software engineer commuting via bike from West Seattle to downtown, waiting for semi-trucks while crossing the access road that leads into the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 18 at Harbor Island may feel like a nuisance. But that kind of daily interaction between Seattle’s high-tech economy and its roots as a working port is a rare combination in a 21st century city, and one that has the potential to be mutually reinforcing, according to local maritime industry leaders.

“Most states have essentially abandoned their working waterfronts for gentrification,” said Washington State Rep. Gael Tarleton, whose district includes the maritime industrial zones in Ballard, Interbay, and Smith Cove.

Tarleton spoke on board an Argosy Cruises boat leading a binational delegation of U.S.-Canadian business executives and political officials on a tour of Seattle’s working waterfront earlier this month hosted by the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) as part of its Economic Leadership Forum.

PNWER is a binational economic cooperation forum headquartered in Seattle. Chartered by statute from state and provincial legislatures, it encompasses Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Northwest Territories, Oregon, Saskatchewan, Washington, and Yukon.

Along the West Coast, Tarleton cited the shift in cargo business from the Port of San Diego to Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as from San Francisco to Oakland, as examples of what she hopes Seattle — with its cheek-by-jowl combination of a major international port, a bustling downtown business district, two professional sports stadiums, and waterfront parks and recreation — will avoid.

Tarleton, a former Seattle port commissioner, contrasted the diminished presence of commercial fishing vessels at San Francisco’s iconic Fisherman’s Wharf with the still vibrant home of the North Pacific fishing fleet at Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal.

“This region made a choice a long time ago that we would be grounded in the jobs and opportunities that come with having a maritime and fishing connection,” she said.

Washington Rep. Gael Tarleton, a former Seattle port commissioner, with the maritime industry of her legislative district in the background.

A two-hour cruise around Elliott Bay offered a front row seat of the sheer variety of maritime industries operating in close proximity to downtown Seattle — and some of the high-, low-, and green-tech innovations they are pursuing.

Energy efficiency and low-carbon power, in particular, are urgent needs for the maritime industry. In April 2018, the International Maritime Organization, world shipping’s governing body, adopted aggressive goals to reduce its carbon footprint. Scientists estimate that cargo ships account for more than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Port of Seattle now offers electricity hookups for cruise ships, a growing seasonal presence in Elliott Bay, so that they do not have to run their generators while in port. The hope is for cargo ships to eventually use them as well, though Pacific Merchant Shipping Association Vice President Captain Michael Moore was skeptical.

“Think of a 747 on batteries and then apply it to ships,” he said of the massive container vessels that dock at the Port of Seattle.

While electric tugs and pilot boats could happen in the near future, Moore is bullish on fuel efficiency gains in engine operation, propeller design, and cleaner hulls.

“Right now we have big power demand ships that are doing a lot to become more efficient,” Moore said, noting that a 20 percent reduction in speed results in a 40 percent savings in fuel. So-called “speed optimization” or “slow steaming” is one proposed method to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions, though it has met with pushback from shipping lines.

Electricity is the name of the game for what could become the world’s biggest hybrid-powered, auto-carrying ferries within the largest ferry system in the U.S. Inspired by a similar fleet in Norway, the Washington State Department of Transportation plans to convert three existing diesel-powered ferries to electric-diesel hybrids.

Vigor Industries won the contract to build five more hybrids from scratch at their Seattle shipyard. On a weekday in November, their Harbor Island drydock was serving a ferry, the M/V Kittitas, and a Navy vessel. The Portland, Ore.-based company also has a facility in Ketchikan, Alaska, where they build silos for the U.S. missile defense system.

The Port of Seattle will also remain on the cutting edge of U.S. defense and science in the Arctic as the home port for next-generation Coast Guard icebreakers.

Aboard the MV Wenatchee with downtown Seattle in the distance. The Wenatchee is one of the Washington State Ferries slated to become an electric-diesel hybrid. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Pulling into the port’s East Waterway at the mouth of the Duwamish River, cranes unloaded cargo from a container ship in a choreographed dance. Technology innovations are largely showing up “near port” rather than at the terminal itself, Northwest Seaport Alliance Deputy CEO Kurt Beckett told GeekWire.

He described an existing system of RFID transponders in trucks and camera systems integrated with the Seattle Department of Transportation’s real-time traffic management system to help the tricky flow of trucks through increasingly congested city streets and highways.

“A lot of it isn’t at the upper end of cutting edge,” Beckett said, but he noted many areas for possible improvement. Increased automation could predict impending “vessel bunches” that might bring a surge of cargo and help navigate such spikes when, say, there is also a Seahawks or Sounders game day. Such concerns pushed the Port of Seattle to aggressively oppose a proposed privately-funded sports arena in the Sodo area.

While Seattle-area companies are global innovators in software, the same is not true of the city’s ports. Generally speaking, Beckett said, “U.S. ports are followers of places like Singapore and Rotterdam.”

Northwest Seaport Alliance Deputy CEO Kurt Beckett.

High-tech breakthroughs in the maritime industry include the blockchain-backed TradeLens, a collaboration between shipping giant Maersk and IBM. Closer to home, GE Digital designed an optimization platform for the Port of Los Angeles.

But those innovations run up against entrenched industry practices.

“The challenge in the global supply chain is the proprietary history of the industry, which doesn’t lead to a lot of data sharing,” Beckett said. “[With TradeLens and Port Optimizer], we may start getting over that hump of, will people share and if so, how do you safely share and integrate that data?”

If maritime industry competitors are willing to become more collaborative, Beckett believes there is abundant potential for digital applications to ease physical logistical challenges such as rough weather that can throw off the delicate dance of shippers and ports. “We can [already] manage these systems at an unprecedented scale, but that doesn’t mean we can deal with the fact that ships have to slow down due to weather in the Pacific or the Port of Shanghai is thrown off because of fog and 100-plus vessels per day go off schedule,” Beckett said.

Back at the Port of Seattle, industry and political leaders are optimistic that the region will remain competitive following the January rollout of the state’s Maritime Blue 2050 strategy, which is co-chaired by Rep. Tarleton and Vigor CEO Frank Foti.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee touted the plan as a first-of-its-kind coordinated effort to innovate across a somewhat traditional industry in areas including electrification, decarbonization technology, software and data applications, and workforce development to bring young people into maritime careers. The Port of Seattle’s proposal to renovate the historic Seattle Ship Supply building at Fishermen’s Terminal into the Maritime Innovation Center is one concrete effort to deliver on the strategy’s goals.

A Seattle Police Department boat passes in front of a massive container ship at the Port of Seattle.

Seattle’s uniquely close proximity of a port, business district, and residents can create conflicts. The cranes building out Expedia’s new waterfront headquarters, pinched between the Pier 86 grain terminal and the busy cruise ship port and seafood cold storage at Smith Cove, are a prime example of where these two pillars of Seattle’s economy intersect.

“There are competitive pressures driven by real estate development,” Beckett said.

Tarleton is actively engaged in the plans in her legislative district to transform Interbay into a denser residential neighborhood while retaining its industrial businesses.

“As we grow really fast, there is always going to be a debate about how you deal with urgent land needs versus long-term protection of [industrial] capacity,” said Tarleton, who won a Washington Business Alliance Legislator of the Year award in 2017 for securing state funding for career and technical education in K-12 schools.

“People are coming here to get jobs in these trades,” added Tarleton. “The more we have a diverse economy here, the less likely it is we’re going to lose [the working waterfront].”

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