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Sunday, September 12, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Proposal For Sea-Tac's Third Runway Stirs Controversy Over Port Position -- Miller's Strongest Port Opponents Favor Airport In Chehalis County

This is Paige Miller's year to try where so many others have failed - to explain exactly what the Port of Seattle does.

"I spend a lot of time explaining that yes, we run Sea-Tac, and it's two-thirds of our business. No, we don't run the ferry system, and no, we don't own most of those properties along the central waterfront," says Miller, 44, a Yale-educated attorney and former Seattle City Council aide.

The truth is not many people did care much about what the port does. That has been a perennial surprise since the port, a $157 million-a-year enterprise, last year got a $35.6 million tax subsidy from King County taxpayers, without which the port would not have turned a profit ($5.8 million in 1993). An owner of a $200,000 house in the city or county this year paid the port $61 for its operations.

The apathy began to change, sometimes to anger, when a third runway was proposed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Miller's support of that proposal, which has stirred up noise-affected neighborhoods from Mercer Island to Normandy Park, has earned her 10 opponents in the countywide race for re-election to the Port of Seattle commission.

Three of her opponents in Tuesday's primary - Mary Locke, James Streit and Domenico di Gregorio - live close to the port's Terminal Five expansion project and are concerned about the project's effect on their West Seattle neighborhoods.

Loren Martin Jackson, a doorman, opposes airport noise.

Joseph Wesolowski, a retired dock- and ship-worker, wants to make the port more of a revenue-producer.

Pete Dolan, a retired longshoreman, is a perennial port candidate.

John Kennedy, a business consultant, wants to end port subsidies of its foreign customers' operations, contending that this practice erodes the U.S. job base.

Paul Ramsay, the other candidate, did not respond to requests for information.

And there are two who could cause Miller real trouble Tuesday:

-- George Tamblyn, a 56-year-old Mercer Island businessman, co-owns a metals-recycling firm on Harbor Island.

Tamblyn, a Democrat, attracted 34 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful run last year against Republican Jennifer Dunn in the heavily Republican 8th Congressional District. Tamblyn figures he can count on those votes, and he has attracted the support of several foes of a third runway.

He accuses Miller of falling victim to an often-noted tendency for citizen activists who become port commissioners to become born-again port insiders, captive to the port staff.

"I see a highly paid, sophisticated and educated staff dealing with five commissioners who come off the street and meet no criteria other than to be elected," Tamblyn says. "Even if you're a Yale lawyer, it's hard to figure this stuff out."

Tamblyn says his training and experience as a lawyer and business owner will help him develop an independent point of view.

-- Jim Wright, a 54-year-old owner of a marine-sales firm, was a port commissioner from 1983 to 1989. Wright was a port gadfly during his tenure, but his abrasive ways earned him the enmity of the port staff and fellow port commissioners, who removed him from the commission presidency after five months on the job.

Wright claims an insider's knowledge of the port. "I know what's going on inside the port operations," Wright says.

"They're not going to be able to con me."

Lucy Copass, a veteran citizen activist and port-watcher credits Miller with lots of hard work in developing good port relations with China and putting together a port ethics policy, activities that don't get a lot of press.

"Paige came into the port six years ago as a community activist, and she represented that point of view very well over the years, and is, in addition, a very smart woman who does her homework on issues," Copass says. "But she certainly ran into a Waterloo in regard to the runway issue."

Copass says Miller largely has lost her citizen-activist base for "a stand she views as having no other choice. She views it as a courageous choice."

Both Miller and Tamblyn received a "very good" rating from the Municipal League, one grade short of the "outstanding" Miller received when she first ran for the commission six years ago. Wright was rated "adequate."

Tamblyn has been endorsed by Vision Seattle and several Democratic groups. Miller has been endorsed by two Democratic groups, the King County Labor Council and other union groups, the King County Women's Political Caucus and the Alki Foundation. Miller has been endorsed by The Seattle Times, Tamblyn by the Seattle Weekly.

Both Wright and Tamblyn favor construction of a new airport near Chehalis, with a high-speed rail link between Seattle and Portland that would ferry air passengers to the new facility. They say the port is acting solely in its self-interest in trying to retain Sea-Tac, by far its biggest moneymaker, as the region's dominant airport.

In addition to the airport noise issue, Wright questions the area's ability to handle the increased ground traffic from an enlarged airport.

Tamblyn says no one really knows how much the third runway would cost. While a price tag of $500 million has been estimated for the project, he points to a bond prospectus issued by the port in February 1993, which highlights the fact that "the ultimate construction cost . . . cannot be predicted accurately now."

Miller says the port could be sued for projecting costs to investors that don't pan out. And she says proponents of the Chehalis site are not accepting reality.

Miller says the cost of high-speed rail (possibly $1 billion) added to the cost of a new airport ($2 billion) is a dubious investment for a site no one may want to use.

"So what this means," says Miller, "is that you take people who live in Seattle, and they hop on a train and it takes them an hour and a half to get to the airport, and they have to pay for that ride, and they can only catch that train once an hour. If they miss it, they have to wait another hour. If they don't live in Seattle, if they live in Renton, they've got to find a stop that's nearby, and there would only be about four stops . . ."

Miller thinks McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma eventually will open up as a new regional airport, but until then, Sea-Tac is the best bet.

Wright and Tamblyn counter that the port wants to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into an airport doomed to obsolescence within 20 to 30 years.

"I don't think the port is making what could be remotely described as a sound financial decision," Tamblyn said.

Tamblyn and Wright fault Miller's continued support of the port's levy, which is both larger than the Port of Tacoma's and yields the Port of Seattle less profit. Tacoma assesses 25 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value, compared with Seattle's 34 cents, but made a profit of $14 million on $52.5 million in revenue, compared to Seattle's $5 million on $156 million in revenue).

Last week, the port staff told the commission the levy might have to be raised $5 million to $10 million a year if all the port's planned capital projects are pursued; Miller asked the staff to find other ways to raise the money.

Miller says the Port of Seattle performs many public functions that the Port of Tacoma does not, including enhanced public access to port facilities, such as Fisherman's Terminal, and repair of Seattle's waterfront.

Wright says an out-of-control example of that kind of spending is the port's new office building at Pier 69, which has vast open space and museum-quality art, but which went from a price estimate of $31 million (including a new parking facility) in the late 1980s to more than $50 million.

Miller has the fund-raising edge in the race so far, and she has received endorsements from everyone from Bud Coffey, Boeing's chief lobbyist, to Darlene Madenwald, head of the Washington Environmental Council. Mayor Norm Rice is the honorary chairman of her campaign. Her $43,000 war chest was supplied by a wide range of friends, political supporters, port staff and customers.

After his last-minute entry into the race, Tamblyn has raised $14,000, of which $4,500 is his own money. He intends to spend as much as possible on last-minute television ads.

Wright has raised no money and has spent less than $200. He says that's because he decided not to take money from anyone with an interest in the port.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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