The Port of Seattle, and its sister port in Tacoma, as part of the Northwest Seaport Alliance is a large-scale operation supporting about a third of Washington gross domestic product, employing tens of thousands of Washingtonians, and moving 3.7 million containers per year. The current 10-year strategic plan calls for growing the port to 6.0 million containers by 2025. The Port of Seattle is investing up to a billion dollars over the next decade ($) to improve the access of new huge cargo ships by deepening Terminal 5 in addition to docks, cranes, and transportation. These new huge cargo ships are 400 meters (about a quarter-mile) long, require a deep port for their 16-meter (52.5 feet) draft, and carry 18,000 containers.

Is there a way to harness these changes to our ports to allow for more growth while also building resilience to climate change, improving the cities that grew up around them, and allowing for environmental restoration?

Today, the ports are built on waterways and islands dredged from the Duwamish tidal flats in 1909. Continuing to invest in this old configuration and infrastructure has limited upside, and instead the Port of Seattle, the City of Seattle, and Washington State should consider investing growth into a new floating port. The technology to allow for a floating port is under investigation around the world in places like Japan, Korea, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Generally created from hollow cement pontoons, similar to the new SR-520 bridge, floating ports allow for new space in deeper water. In Seattle, a floating port would allow operations to be removed from the delicate environments of the Duwamish tidal flats into the deeper water of Elliott Bay.

Though a dramatic change to the operations of the Port of Seattle, transitioning to a floating port has many benefits for both the port and the city. For the Port of Seattle, a floating port is prepared for growth and challenges of the future. The primary limitation to handling large ships is the depth of the port; a floating port will take advantage of the steep slope of Elliott Bay to create cargo terminals with depths of more than 40 meters (131 feet) without dredging. In addition, a floating port makes a large part of the operations resilient to the predicted worst case scenario of 127 cenitmeters (4.1 feet) of sea level rise by 2100 that would flood parts of Harbor Island. Starting the transition to a floating port today will build resilience and avoid sea level rise being an emergency for the Port of Seattle even in a future that results in the high end of predicted sea level rise ($).

Beyond economics, the benefits of a floating port for the City of Seattle also come from the potential for environmental restoration and the redevelopment of hundreds of acres of coastal lands no longer needed as port terminals. Harbor Island and both the West Seattle and SoDo waterfronts present a challenging but rewarding opportunity for environmental restoration. The pollution would need to be removed from all the sites, but then both the West Seattle waterfront, and Harbor Island could be returned to more natural tide flats–providing an amenity for Seattleites, habitat for native species, and a buffer against predicted sea level rise. The SoDo waterfront could become an improved sea wall with a wide stretch of green flood protection in a model similar to what many cities are doing with their urban rivers and connecting with Seattle’s new downtown waterfront.

Even with extensive environmental restoration, there should still be over a hundred acres of land left over to redevelop. This land can become places that allow thousands of people to live and work near these new amenities, growing number of port jobs, and downtown Seattle without cutting into the industrial heart of the city in SoDo. Rotterdam is a good example of a large successful port, where excese port land is being redeveloped for residents.

The final benefit of moving the Port of Seattle operations to a floating port is that it can be done incrementally with minimal interruption of port activities. There is about 1,000 acres of deep water between the current port operations and the downtown ferry routes. It should be possible for floating sections to be added as there is time and money to develop them until they create a floating terminal.

Cost was roughly estimated using costs from the recently built SR-520 floating bridge. The completed bridge, with all the bells and whistles, created approximately 35 floating acres for $4.51 billion, resulting in about $130 million per acre. However, judging by just the cost of the pontoons, a floating deck can be created for closer to $18.5 million per acre. From these numbers and current port layout, the estimate of an individual floating terminal, with space for containers, would be about 75 acres (costing roughly between $1.4 billion and $9.8 billion).

These individual floating terminals can then become part of port operations by unloading larger vessels onto barges that can ferry the cargo to the remaining port facilities on land. Ultimately, there is the potential to grow the new floating port into nearly 500 acres that could handle 15 or more of the futures ultra-big ships, or other operations. In this way Seattle can reclaim part of its long abused river tidal flats, create new amenities and neighborhoods for its people, while creating a port that can grow sustainably into the future.

Greg is a climate scientist and aerospace engineer with a PhD and bachelors from the University of Washington. He advocates for a city full of housing, commerce, industry, and recreation as ways to increase resilience to climate change, and reduce carbon emissions.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating idea. Given that Harbor Island is artificial, would it be removed completely in this restoration, or would parts of it be developed?

    • Check out his map. If you tap on it, you’ll see that it says that Harbor Island would be “[r]estore[d] tidal flats after floating port complete.” The remaining landside terminal could be a place for redevelopment under his proposal.

      • Awesome, thanks. The cost/benefit analysis on this is interesting: the cost of dredging and land expansion vs the cost of a floating port and natural restoration, less the value of the port’s waterfront property.

        • Hi Preston – Thank you for the comment, I don’t think the cost/benefit analysis would be a slam dunk for the floating port, the dredging is expensive but doesn’t warrant the investment on its own. I think the risk of sea level rise, and the cost of protecting the numerous assets in the Duwamish tidal flat has the potential to change the math on an idea like this.

  2. Greg, appreciate the creativity but there would be no economic justification for this project. The $1.5-10bn estimate only covers the the cost of the island, you’ll then need to factor in another $.5bn to build out the service facilities

    On top of that, under your proposed idea, the need to offload cargo twice for it to get rail loaded creates all kinds of inefficiencies and would cause operating costs to skyrocket. The benefit-to-cost ratio would never even get close to positive on this concept.

    A much more practical and achievable approach to creating navigable channels for GEN IV vessels is to deepen the two waterways on either side of Harbor Island, something that the Port is investigating right now. This deeping effort is projected to cost ~$60m.

    • Hi Brian – Thank you for your comment. I tend to agree that making the economic case for a port in the present is a challenge, and that it would likely take sea level rise putting the port at serious risk to motivate this kind of change. I do think having it as an option, and evaluating the benefits to the city, and environment, in addition to the port and economy would be a good idea. The deepening work around Harbor Island does seem like the logical next thing to do, but depending on aspirations for growth, there is still fairly limited space and the dredging is an on going cost (though fairly small for the Port of Seattle).

      • The twice handling issue for the incremental build up of floating terminals (I imagine that once the floating port was large enough you would invest in a hard connection for both trucks and rail) is a tricky one, but is being actively evaluated for a few different projects (though none in quite the configuration you would need in Seattle). I don’t claim any experience on moving cargo, but with a creative configuration it seems possible for the barges to stand in for the short haul trucking (cranes to trains), rather than adding an additional handling step. It would be great to run detailed numbers on these options.

  3. Look at Cherry Point in Whatcom County. It would be a natural deep water port. Yes, there are environmental concerns, they are everywhere.
    Patrick Alesse

    • Hi Guy – Thank you for the comment. Cherry Point looks like a good place for a deep water port (environmental concerns, and what is planning on being shipped there aside). Part of my motivation for looking into floating ports was specifically to keep this industrial activity, near to Seattle where it supports so many jobs and a diverse economy.

  4. There are a whole bunch of reasons this proposal is completely unworkable. It’s apparent the author has no understanding of the shipping business. One of the main fundamentals of this day and age is the concept of just-in-time inventories. Where in years past, companies had warehouses with stockpiles of goods, now they rely on the cargo they need to be delivered today, just as they need it.

    Having a “floating port” to receive cargo then barging the cargo to the established terminals would add quite a bit of time to the whole process.

    One of the current concepts in the shipping industry is improving “cargo velocity” – that is, decreasing the amount of time it takes the cargo to make its trip from Asia to the end destination. The whole industry works to streamline its processes to improve the cargo velocity and to decrease costs.

    And in fact, that’s one of Seattle and Tacoma’s main selling points – it’s several days closer to Midwest markets because of our efficient inter-modal rail connections. Adding extra steps would likely kill the port’s inter-modal rail business.

    Then there’s the added cost of double-handling containers. This cost will be passed on to the customers? I’m sure they’ll love that.

    And then, the $10 billion price tag. Who precisely is going to pay for that? And that’s just to build the pontoons supporting this floating port. How about infrastructure? Ship to shore cranes, trucks and cargo-handling equipment to service them, buildings to house workers, and how about all those pesky barges? And the people to operate all this new stuff? You do have to pay wages for essentially double handling the cargo (once at the floating port and then again at the mainland terminal).

    And if the existing terminals have to remain to receive the cargo from the floating ports, what’s gained?

    When you get done, I suspect the grand total would be several times greater than the author stated.

    So what do you have? You have a $20-30+ billion dollar floating port that would likely kill Seattle’s shipping industry.

    This is a really stupid idea.

    • Hi Michael – Thank you for the comments/questions, and I agree that a floating port is in no way a slam dunk economically. Specifically in regards to the barging of goods from a floating terminal, my concept is that these barges would stand in for short haul trucks, going from crane to train, rather than creating an extra step of handling (which would be a problem). Additionally, if the costs to building, and operations of an initial floating terminal were a success, I would expect a large floating port to include investment in a bridge connection for trains and trucks. Overall, there are a lot of critical details to work out to know what the benefits and costs would be, but with a rapidly changing industry and the specter of both sea level rise and a potential for pricing carbon, there is a need to evaluate new ideas that allow for industrial growth near the city.

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