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Port Chairman Zucchet Sees Rays Of Hope Along San Diego's Bay Front In 2021

Boats rest in San Diego Bay near the Grape Street Pier on Aug. 27, 2018.
Erik Anderson
Boats rest in San Diego Bay near the Grape Street Pier on Aug. 27, 2018.

The Port of San Diego struggled last year and it is unclear if the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to disrupt the public agency.

The Port of San Diego, the agency charged with managing the land around San Diego Bay, just endured a brutal financial year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson recently spoke with the Chair of the Port Commission, Michael Zucchet. He called 2020 an unprecedented challenge.

Note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Q: How bad was last year for the Port of San Diego?

On the one hand, cruise ships, hotels, restaurants, convention base, this was not a good year for those tenants — and for those entities to the extent that they pay rent to the port — that’s been a particularly challenging part of our book of business. Luckily, we’re also quite diversified. We have a lot of cargo and marine terminals. Dole is still shipping billions of bananas every year. We are still handling a lot of cargo. Shipbuilding, shipbuilders and ship repair are still thriving. Hundreds of thousands of cars from Asia are still coming. And so, we’re sort of just navigating all of that. Luckily, as an organization, we had substantial financial reserves, which we have used this year. I think this is the definition of a rainy day as it relates to public entities, and so we’ve used that. The big question is: is this summer really the beginning again of some form of normalcy — that’s the optimistic view and maybe the base case — but who the heck knows?

Q: Has this financial crunch inhibited the port’s ability to do what is necessary to serve the people of San Diego?

We have a need to spend money to maintain these lands, so we’ve been able to do that. We have definitely cut expenses. We’ve deferred certain capital projects. We’ve instituted a hiring freeze. Our employees have given back pay increases. So, there has been sacrifice. But in terms of delivering those services, we’ve continued. In fact, these parks and the open space and access to the waterfront has been particularly important during the pandemic because that’s some safe, outdoor, socially distanced activities that we can do.

Video: Port Chairman Zucchet Sees Rays Of Hope Along San Diego's Bay Front In 2021

Q: When you think of the year ahead, what do you think of?


Continuing navigation of the pandemic and continuing on with those services. The port is responsible for tens of thousands of jobs, cargo and goods that are important for San Diego and our region and the country, frankly, so continuing on all of that, is number one. Number two, we’ve got some transitions at the port that are happening. We’ve got some new commissioners and a new president and CEO. Third, we have a number of projects in the pipeline some high-profile projects from reimagining Seaport Village, the Chula Vista bay front project, and a number of others that are important. Then, for me personally, the initiative this year that I’ve really identified, and am going to be working on, is clean air. The port obviously engages in a lot of activities that affect our environment, particularly as it relates to diesel truck trips through some portside communities.

Q: If you think about the port today and you think about the port in five years, what transitions can we expect?

I think for starters, we could be on our way to a fully electrified port. Not just in terms of diesel-truck traffic, but that’s something that is a possibility within the next decade. And to get there in 10 years we have to start now with our infrastructure, and shore power and microgrids. And dealing with cruise ships and everything else. So, I think you’ll see an energy and greenhouse gas emission and diesel emission transformation over the next five to 10 years.

Port Chairman Zucchet Sees Rays Of Hope Along San Diego's Bay Front In 2021
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.