July 31, 2007
The Port of Seattle's new Executive Director Tay Yoshitani has put a sudden and very deserving end to the ill-conceived and highly unpopular airport-railroad swap deal.
As you are most likely well aware, this proposal called for the Port to purchase the Eastside railroad from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway for $103 million and then transfer it to King County along with $66 million to pay for ripping out the tracks and constructing a bicycle trail in their place. In return, the County would transfer its heavily used airport, Boeing Field, to the Port.
In his first major speech since coming to Seattle, Yoshitani told an audience at the Rotary Club last Wednesday: "We have pretty much concluded, for a number of reasons, that it doesn't make sense for us to own King County Airport."
Although he did not list the reasons, many of them should be obvious to anyone who has been following the proposed swap. Among them are the facts that nobody benefits from it and that the Port's mission is to improve regional mobility, not destroy transportation infrastructure. Also, there might be legal impediments to the use of Port funds to scrap the railroad.
Reflecting both his realization that the initial proposal would fall through and his desperation to save his pet project, King County Executive Ron Sims recently suggested a modified deal in which the Port's funding of the railroad scrapping and trail construction would be slashed to $44 million. The County would cut expenditures by not ripping out the tracks in road crossings and by leaving bridges and trestles intact. However, Yoshitani also stated that the Port does not like this proposal either. Nor should it, because, as with the original proposal, almost nobody benefits, including the port, and virtually everybody loses.
This rejection of Sims' proposals is consistent with Yoshitani's impeccable record as a professional and reform-oriented administrator at three of the nation's largest ports (Los Angeles, Oakland and Maryland). Yoshitani has always been concerned with enhancing a region's transportation infrastructure rather than destroying it. And despite his newness on the job here, he is undoubtedly already well aware of the fact that the Eastside railroad could play a major role in improving mobility for the Seattle area as a whole as well as an indirect but significant role in supporting mobility for the port operations.
Yoshitani's style is in sharp contrast with that of his predecessor, Mic Dinsmore, who seemed to place more emphasis on backroom deals and whose actions and tenure generated considerable controversy. Among these controversies, of course, was his role in hatching the airport-railroad swap deal together with Sims.
Although Yoshitani's statements represent a major breakthrough with regard to saving the railroad, this is by no means the end of the threat. Unfortunately, Sims is still obsessed with acquiring and scrapping the line despite both the obvious damage that it would do to the region and the strong opposition to it.
Yoshitani also stated that the Port supports acquisition of the railroad by the public sector and that it could make a substantial contribution towards its purchase. This could be a very good thing, but it is important that any such contribution come with ironclad guarantees that it be used to retain and upgrade the railroad rather than scrap it. And any new owner of the railroad should definitely not be King County, as the County has no experience in operating railroads and the current leadership is intent on destroying it.
That Yoshitani has made such a decisive move on this very important issue right near the start of his term is a good omen for what could become an enlightened and progressive era for the Port. Thanks, Tay! You will be long remembered for your role in helping move our region forward.
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