$1.7B Sought for 2 Key Freight Connections

By Steve Wilhelm, April 26, 2013, Puget Sound Business Journal

Fear of rising cargo competition may be the tipping point that brings completion of two long-sought Puget Sound-area freight-mobility projects.

But political resistance to new taxes to pay for the projects remains.

The projects, to finish State Routes 167 and 509, would remove traffic bottlenecks between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and Kent Valley warehouses.

The state House Transportation Committee on April 22 passed a package that includes $1.7 billion for the two projects, putting them into play as part of budget negotiations between the two chambers. The projects have risen to the top of regional cargo interests’ priority list, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association.

“There’s a broad understanding of the importance of port competition right now,” Johnson said.

Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis contended the need is urgent.

“What we’re really talking about is the future of the state,” he said, adding that finishing the two routes would add 20,000 jobs related to cargo.

But Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, a member of the House Transportation Committee, voted against the package, which includes a 10-cent gas tax increase, because he said the costs of the projects are too high. While he understands the need to complete SR 167 and SR 509, Orcutt said cutting environmental-mitigation expenses and paying off the bonds over a shorter period could lower the overall cost.

“When we get some reforms to bring down the cost of doing those projects — and some general reforms to improve the number of jobs for people — then we’re willing to look at it,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to go into taxpayers’ pockets until we can make the money go further.”

SR 509 is a freeway that extends from the Duwamish industrial area but then peters out near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport without connecting to I-5.

SR 167 is the four-lane highway that starts at I-405 and runs the length of the Kent Valley, but then turns into a congested two-lane road before crossing I-5 to reach the Port of Tacoma.

Pressure to complete the two is heightened by increasing competition from ports in British Columbia.

“You have British Columbia making billions of dollars in transportation investments,” said Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant.

At the Port of Tacoma, Government Affairs Director Sean Eagan estimates that completing the unfinished six miles of 167 could fuel $10 billion in job growth and cut travel time between Puyallup and the port by 15 percent.

As an example of the status quo, Eagan said that one Eastern Washington hay exporter is starting to source hay outside Washington state because traffic congestion is keeping trucks from making two daily trips to the warehouses where the hay is loaded onto containers.

“We’re talking not just about longshore jobs, which we care about,” he said, “but also the truck driving company in Auburn, the hay grower in central Washington.”

Of the $1.7 billion for the two projects, about $330 million would come from tolls on the two routes. Another $1.3 billion would come from the higher gas tax, and $130 million from private and federal sources.

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