Washington Ports​ Fast Facts

There are 75 public ports in Washington State.

  • Washington has the largest locally controlled port system in the world.
  • 42 ports operate industrial areas.
  • 41 ports operate recreational piers/ marinas/docks.
  • 31 ports operate airports.
  • 16 ports operate marine terminals.
  • In 2007, one in three jobs in Washington was related to trade.
  • Washington is among the top exporting states in the United States, after California and Texas.
  • Together, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma are the third largest container load center in North America.
  • About one-third of U.S. grain exports move in the Columbia/Snake River system to world markets.
  • Washington constitutes only 2 percent of U.S. population yet handles 7 percent of U.S. exports and 6 percent of the nation’s imports.
  • Foreign exports directly and indirectly account for an estimated 25 percent of Washington’s Gross State product.

Port History

Most of Washington’s early port facilities were privately owned. Whoever owned the waterfront amenities controlled the movement of people and goods in that area, and the cost of such movement. In many regions, a private monopoly existed and prices were established accordingly.

Waterfront monopolies in Washington were first broken in 1889 when the new State Constitution provided that the beds of navigable waters belonged to the people, and the Legislature could designate which places would be harbor areas. It also provided a system for leasing waterfront tidelands and uplands in those areas.
The Port District Act of 1911 allowed the people to establish port districts and elect commissioners to administer the districts and oversee their development and operation. Many were established and the facilities that they developed were owned by the public, and the people who used them were free of the problems created by private monopolies.

Washington’s public port districts were originally authorized to provide maritime shipping facilities and rail/water transfer facilities.
Since then, many additional authorities have been granted, such as​:​

  • building and operating airports (1941);
  • establishing industrial development districts (1955);
  • developing trade centers (1967);
  • and developing economic development programs; and promoting tourism (1980s).

While many port laws have changed since 1911, the most important provisions still remain. Because they are public, but must operate in a proprietary way much like other types of business, public ports have a unique set of governmental authorities, which enable public them to respond quickly to specific economic development needs of their communities.

Economic Development

As municipal corporations, Washington ports are limited to powers specifically granted by the Legislature or reasonably implied from those granted powers.
Ports primarily provide four types of facilities: industrial areas; recreational marinas/docks; airports; and marine terminals.
They also have the authority to:

  • Buy, lease and sell personal property and real property.
  • Build and operate sea walls, jetties, piers, wharves, docks, boat landings, warehouses, storehouses, elevators, grain bins, cold storage plants, ice plants, bunkers, oil tanks, ferries, canals, locks, tidal basins, bridges, subways, tramways, cableways, conveyors, fishing terminals, rail and motor vehicle transfer facilities, belt line railways, roads and highways.
  • Develop lands for industrial and commercial needs by dredging, filling, bulkheading, providing and improving waterways.
  • Enter into public works contracts.
  • Operate trade centers and export trading companies.
  • Establish and operate foreign trade zones.
  • Provide environmental enhancement, protection, and public access
  • Provide air and water pollution control facilities.
  • Provide tourism-related facilities.


Ports are authorized by law to issue a variety of municipal bonds, which are used almost exclusively for capital construction projects and are paid for by property taxes. Revenue bonds are issued to build a facility where the revenues generated by the project service the debt directly. In order to develop a project, it’s some
times necessary for a port to create a Local Improvement District (LID). After adhering to strict guidelines and complying with federal restrictions, a port can set up a special assessment to issue​ industrial development revenue bonds. These don’t generate revenue for the port, but they do provide a way to help finance development, operation or expansion of industry in the district. No taxes or port funds are used to retire these bonds.

Grants and Gifts

Ports use a variety of grants and gifts, like property, to support infrastructure development.

Although the federal government doesn’t have a formal program to provide ports with direct financial assistance, some ports have received indirect assistance through federal agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Washington’s ports also receive financial help from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO), the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).