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caption: Terminal 46 on the waterfront at the foot of King St. in downtown Seattle, on June 28, 2019.
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Terminal 46 on the waterfront at the foot of King St. in downtown Seattle, on June 28, 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph

More cruise ships? Seattle grapples with what to do with Terminal 46

The Port of Seattle is investing in bringing more big international cargo ships to Seattle. Part of the plan involves moving cargo away from Terminal 46 and using it for cruise ships instead.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is calling that a mistake.

Terminal 46 is at the foot of King Street downtown. It is as urban as a port terminal can be, with orange cranes, chain link fences separating it from the traffic on Alaskan Way and asphalt.

But the union says it's a natural resource — something rare that needs to remain exactly what it is.

Terminal 46 is a deepwater terminal, one of several in Seattle. Shipping companies are investing in gigantic cargo ships, looking for economies of scale.

That is forcing ports like Seattle's to invest in terminals that can accommodate the monumental cranes and other facilities needed to serve these ships — or lose them altogether.

Right now the port's plan is to invest in Terminal 5, visible to the north from the West Seattle bridge, and then to concentrate international cargo there and at Terminal 18 on Harbor Island.

Terminal 46 would no longer accommodate international container cargo. A third of its work would be converted to serving cruise ships. Cruise passengers could be using the terminal within three years.

ILWU Local 19 president Rich Austin says not using a rare deepwater terminal for cargo is a misuse of the resource.

"It's about the preservation of marine terminals and industrial lands in the future," he said in an interview.

The concern is that once the terminal is converted away from cargo, it will be hard to find an operator who will want to invest in it. But Port of Seattle Commission president Stephanie Bowman said Terminal 46 can turn into an international marine cargo terminal again if Terminals 5 and 18 are successful and more capacity is needed.

"There's nothing in our plan that would prohibit us from doing that long-term," Bowman said.