Patchwork projects won't cure our freight-mobility problem

A Seattle Port Commissioner argues for comprehensive, strategic, national investments for moving goods and retaining competitiveness. Just look to Canada for an example, and a threat.
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The Port of Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

A Seattle Port Commissioner argues for comprehensive, strategic, national investments for moving goods and retaining competitiveness. Just look to Canada for an example, and a threat.

Leaders throughout Washington state often remark that one in three Washington jobs depends on international trade. Look to your left and to your right: If those jobs aren'ꀙt dependent on trade, yours probably is. And jobs that depend on trade also depend on a national network of roads and rail, a network that moves goods from the Puget Sound to distribution centers in Chicago, Columbus, and Memphis.

The sad and scary facts: Our highway connectors are deteriorating and our rail lines have frequent choke points. Freight shipment is the backbone of our national economy, yet we have no concerted, comprehensive national freight strategy. Freight choke points are usually seen just as a local issue in terms worsening traffic congestion and adding to local air pollution. That's only part of the picture. Solutions must be addressed at the national level if we are going to move beyond the current, broken funding system.

Our conversations about transportation funding tend to focus on the merits of specific projects. That usually leaves out a discussion about whether the project complements a broader regional and national strategy. Does it warrant the dollars it requests, compared to other projects still waiting for funding?

Roads and railways are only as effective as the system they support. If U.S. ports are going to continue to generate the family-wage jobs and economic opportunity they have produced in the past, transportation funding needs this kind of a new framework, one that ranks projects that best support the economy that move goods from farm to market. Moreover, a properly planned, constructed, and maintained freight system — adding capacity and building grade separations where appropriate — also benefits passenger rail, buses, motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

This kind of integrated, big-picture planning is what our competitors are doing, up and down the West Coast. Canadian ports in British Columbia, for instance, have emerged as strong competitors for cargo and jobs. They have moved quickly to become significant players in trans-Pacific trade, and they'ꀙve been able to do so because the Canadian federal and provincial governments view transportation projects as strategic national investments.

As part of a concerted federal freight strategy, the Canadian government has pumped over $3 billion into port infrastructure in British Columbia during the last decade. Transportation dollars are given first to those projects that support the integrated strategy. Make no mistake: These B.C. ports are gunning for the cargo that comes across Puget Sound ports right now, by building strong road and rail networks that move goods to the U.S. Midwest quickly and efficiently.

By contrast, the United States has no national freight strategy. America is faced with crumbling infrastructure at all levels and a funding system older than many of the roads and bridges that are falling apart. As the federal government looks to states to fund transportation, the states have begun looking for other partners who might be able to fill in the gaps. The Port of Seattle has committed $355 million to regional roads projects in the last 10 years, including State Routes 509, 518 and 519, as well as grade separations in the Green River Valley, East Marginal Way in Seattle, and the South Park Bridge. We have also agreed to help fund the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program, an essential north-south transportation corridor for freight. The Seattle Port Commission has unanimously supported these projects because each has a critical freight element, and because they would not be completed without our financial participation.

Ports are not designed to be transportation agencies. They were established to provide infrastructure at the water'ꀙs edge, not roadways, bridges, and commuter thoroughfares throughout the region.

But ports are not designed to be transportation agencies. They were established to provide infrastructure at the water'ꀙs edge, not roadways, bridges, and commuter thoroughfares throughout the region. The current patchwork of funding transportation infrastructure is not sustainable. That's why we need to find a more viable way to fund strategic national infrastructure over the long run.

How do we move forward? Consider these two possibilities: a Chicago-area model, and newly-created federal legislation that provides dedicated federal funding for freight improvements across the country.

In Chicago, CREATE (the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program) is an ambitious public-private partnership that will invest $2.5 billion in 71 projects. CREATE is a first-of-its-kind partnership between the federal government, the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, Metra (the local transit rail authority), Amtrak, and six freight railways.

The projects include new overpasses or underpasses to remove road and rail bottlenecks, separating freight from passenger rail in high-traffic areas, significant safety improvements, and extensive upgrades of tracks, switches, and signal systems. Businesses believe the projects will bring about new jobs and expanded economic opportunity, while Chicago-area residents will see reduced commute time, better air quality because of less congestion, and increased green space along Chicago'ꀙs lakefront. (The Port of Seattle will benefit because our cargo will get to markets in the Midwest more efficiently.)

Another model is the U.S. FREIGHT Act introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. (Its acronym: Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation.) The bill calls for the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a strategic plan for investing in the country'ꀙs goods movement infrastructure. It would create a National Infrastructure Investments Grants Program to fund projects based on merit-based criteria that show how a project supports a national goods movement strategy.

Over the last several years, the Seattle Port Commission has pushed for stronger regional collaboration, and under Port CEO Tay Yoshitani'ꀙs leadership, six major West Coast ports and two western railroads announced in 2009 their intent to collaborate on common infrastructure and policy issues. Last year, members of the collaboration traveled to Washington, D.C. to carry the message that a national goods movement plan is essential for sustaining America'ꀙs role in global trade, and that more federal resources are necessary to maximize the advantages of moving goods from Asia through the U.S. West Coast.

We are also engaging at both the federal and state level in a broader discussion on how we can more sustainably fund transportation infrastructure going forward. Most members of the freight community understand that freight corridors will not be built and properly maintained without some form of user fee in today'ꀙs constrained funding environment, whether it be through tolling, a diesel tax surcharge, or national cargo container fee. Yet they also rightly insist that any freight-related user fee not be diverted to other pet projects but benefit those who pay the fee by creating more efficient freight corridors.

One big question is whether we should have separate funding regimes for freight projects on federal and state and local highways, or a unified funding program at the federal level with allocations to state and local roads. The latter is the better choice, in my view. Having a national program provides consistency and predictability for businesses and prevents one jurisdiction from being at a cost-competitive disadvantage from the next. It also would allow for better planning and coordination of freight mobility projects on a national, system-wide basis.


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