What is a Port

Ports in Washington State

A Port district is a municipal corporation, organized under state law and authorized by a majority vote of the residents in the proposed district, and is governed by a locally elected board of commissioners. The District can be as large as an entire county or as small as a city or town; its boundaries are defined when it is formed.

When ports were first formed in the early 1900s, their primary purpose was to provide facilities for marine transportation and commerce. Over the years, the Legislature has expanded the list of port powers and functions. Some ports deal with all aspects of economic development, others with only one or two. They may:

  • Develop lands for industrial and commercial needs.
  • Provide general economic development programs.
  • Buy, lease and sell property.
  • Provide air and water pollution control works.
  • Operate trade centers and export trading companies.
  • Establish and operate foreign trade zones.
  • Promote tourism.

Powers and Functions

Ports still provide and operate commercial marine transportation facilities, helping to ship anything from grain (bulk) to container cargoes. Ports also maintain and operate airports, commercial and pleasure boat marinas, subsidized space for start-up businesses, cold-storage plants, log-export yards, boat launch ramps, and even a short-haul railroad.


Port activities and functions are financed in a variety of ways. These include lease-rental fees, other charges for services and the use of land and other facilities; property tax levies; proceeds from bonds sold for capital project construction; and grants and gifts.

Port Governance

Each port in Washington state is governed by its own commission, which acts as a board of directors for the port. The commission is elected by citizens in the port district and may consist of three or five commissioners. Most port commissioners serve a six-year term. Port commissioners in countywide port districts with a population of 100,000 or more serve four-year terms. Any port district may elect to convert to a four-year commissioner term.

Duties of a Port Commissioner

A port commissioner is elected by the public and serves as a member of the port commission for a six-year term. 

The port commission is primarily responsible for: Planning, Goal Setting, Evaluation:

The port commission helps plan the port’s future, and then guides the port’s activities in that direction. This planning process involves the port commission, executive director, port staff, customers and citizens/voters. The process usually includes identifying a port’s mission and goals, and developing strategies to achieve them. The port commission is ultimately responsible for evaluating and updating the planning process.

Port District Policymaking:

The port commission develops and adopts port district policies and governs operations. For example, developing guidelines for long-term economic development, establishing positions and employment policies, and adopting budgets.


The port commission approves and adopts an annual budget. Some of the key budget decisions include authorizing and adopting tax levy amounts, adopting policies, and disposing and distributing supplies, property, and equipment.

Designating the Port's Executive Director/Manager:

The port commission is responsible for recruiting, hiring and evaluating the performance of the port’s chief executive. The commission delegates responsibility to this port administrator, then respects that delegated authority.