Pier has Boeing written all over it

I remember some comic-book episodes from my youth involving a Bizzaro Superman – an imperfect clone who tried to be heroic, but couldn’t.

He wound up living in a Bizzaro world, a parallel universe quite different from Superman’s Metropolis.

This was all great preparation for a career in journalism, where you sometimes think you have stepped into a world slightly different than reality as you know it. This is especially true in the world of business, where reality often depends on how many lawyers have been paid to define it.

I was feeling a little like I was in Bizzaro world last week when the Port of Everett commission was receiving an update on the new Boeing pier under construction.

Port officials don’t like me to call it the Boeing pier, because that’s not its name. Officially, it’s called the Rail/Barge Transfer Facility. As you may recall, the state offered to pay $15.5 million for the pier if Boeing promised to build its 787 in Washington state.

Everett won the 787 bidding contest, and it was full speed ahead on the pier. As a footnote, it should be mentioned that the pier will cost something like $25 million, and that Boeing and any other customers will pay fees to cover the $10 million overrun.

The idea is to have a facility that can handle giant containers from overseas and place them on rail flatcars that can run up a nearby rail spur that goes directly to Boeing’s Everett assembly plant.

A realist would say it sure looks like a pier being built for Boeing.

But in Bizzaro world, nobody wants to say that the pier is being constructed for the jet maker, because it could potentially violate international trade rules by providing government help to a private business.

Airbus, Boeing’s main competitor, receives major help from France, Germany and Great Britain in the form of below-market-rate loans to develop new aircraft. The loans don’t have to be repaid until the new planes are flying and hit sales targets. Local governments have done things such as fill in a wetland so Airbus could extend a runway for its jumbo jet, the A380.

That’s a tremendous competitive advantage that the United States has complained about on Boeing’s behalf. Airbus denies that this violates trade agreements, and contends that Boeing also gets massive government support.

So you can see why Boeing doesn’t want to appear as if it’s getting the state’s help. Technically, the pier can be used by any company, not just Boeing. But Boeing is the only potential customer so far.

This can create some awkward moments at the port, when staff members try to talk about the pier and Boeing’s involvement without actual saying the word “Boeing.”

One of those moments came up last week when port engineer John Klekotka wanted the commission to scrap all the bids for the crane to be installed on the pier.

Klekotka explained to the commissioners that he was referring to a rail-mounted gantry crane for “oversized containers in support of aerospace manufacturing near Paine Field.”

Hint: That’s a very long way of saying the word “Boeing.”

“We have been asked by our customer to reject all bids and revise” the crane specifications, Klekotka added, not saying the name of that customer, which is Boeing.

Asked by the commission if Boeing was aware of all this, Klekotka said he hadn’t been in contact with any of their representatives.

Port executive director John Mohr said he had, and that he meets with company officials monthly to keep them up to date on the project. “They want a more efficient crane for what they believe are their manufacturing needs,” he said.

The commission unanimously agreed to reject the bids and to allow the crane specifications to be revised so new bids could be submitted. In the real world, that raises this question: If you’re not building the pier for Boeing, why is it calling the shots on what goes there?

I frankly don’t see anything wrong with using public money to help a major-league employer lower its production costs, become more successful and hire more people who are paid a good wage.

We’re already doing similar things with government financing of the Everett Events Center, the Lynnwood Convention Center and the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour. Public money is behind all of these buildings, to help create jobs that improve the local economy. I’m guessing those facilities will create fewer jobs than Boeing, and those jobs will pay less than Boeing’s.

From my view, helping Boeing is OK. But I’d like to see us step out of Bizzaro world back into reality and be honest about it.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; benbow@heraldnet.com.

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