New Momentum Behind SR 167 Extension to Tacoma

By Jordan Schrader, January 20, 2013, The News Tribune

The engine is revving again on the long-stalled effort to find money to connect state Route 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma.

The extension is included in a proposal developing in the Legislature to raise transportation taxes, says the state lawmaker who is taking the lead on the plan.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn calls for raising money for it through gas taxes and tolls. She suggests tolling carpool lanes on I-5 as a possibility.

The Mercer Island Democrat is tying the link to another connection that is similarly important to industry and labor – that of state Route 509 to Interstate 5 – considering the pair as a single project.

“They’re about the competition of our ports – (with) the rest of our world, not with each other, I would like to add,” Clibborn said.

Finishing 167 has long been at the top of the wish list for state legislators from the South Sound. But this year they say they have a new ally: one of the region’s newest members of Congress, Rep. Denny Heck, who has been working the halls of the Legislature on the project.

Heck, an Olympia Democrat, has joined people from business, labor and local government in a coalition that intends to put pressure on state lawmakers to find some $1.5 billion for the highway.

“There are some heavy-hitting people who are advocating for this,” said state Rep. Hans Zeiger, a Puyallup Republican who
vowed to oppose any package of taxes that doesn’t include completing 167.

Construction of the road from Renton to Tacoma halted in the 1980s at Meridian Avenue in Puyallup. Efforts to renew it have foundered, and often they have taken a back seat to other expensive projects that are tied more directly to safety or commuters’ frustration.

Proponents say a finished 167 would cut travel time from Tacoma to Puyallup and make for a safer drive, but its major selling point is economic development.

It would link the port more directly with the warehouses of the Kent Valley and the farms of eastern Washington, luring more international trade to Washington that proponents worry might otherwise go to Canadian or – with impending expansion of the Panama Canal – East Coast ports.

A 2007 study by the state Department of Transportation estimated the extension of 167 would create 79,000 jobs. Most would be in Pierce County, but the lobbying effort stresses the statewide effects. Clibborn said lawmakers from elsewhere will get information about effects in their districts.

“Part of the premise around the push is the fact that 167 needs to be seen as a very, very important and critical transportation project that is of statewide significance,” said Tim Thompson, a Tacoma-based consultant hired by the coalition.

The gap in Route 509 from the SeaTac area to I-5 is seen as another critical freight corridor, and extending a highway that now runs from Seattle’s industrial area to SeaTac is a priority of the Port of Seattle. The extension would also provide a more direct approach to Sea-Tac Airport from the south.

It could cost nearly $900 million. And 167 is even more expensive at roughly $1.5 billion. While the gap on 167 is just six miles, it requires the construction of dozens of bridges and a complicated interchange with I-5.

To find the money for both, Clibborn said she is asking the department how much the state would raise by allowing lone drivers to pay to use carpool lanes, similar to how commuters use the so-called HOT lanes in east King County.

The department has floated the idea of HOT lanes on I-5 in Pierce County as part of the 167 project or in South King as part of the 509 project, and Clibborn hasn’t said if she’s considering one or both.

But officials have concluded tolling would pay only a fraction of the cost of the 167 completion, perhaps $200 million. Unlike on the Tacoma Narrows bridge, drivers can find a different route to avoid the toll.

“I’m pretty skeptical about tolling because when you look at the percentage of the total cost that tolling could fund, it’s pretty small,” Zeiger said.

An updated study of potential tolling to help pay for 167 is due out this week or next.

Clibborn’s proposal, still in its infancy, wouldn’t rely entirely on tolling. The 167 and 509 projects would get a share of a proposed gas tax increase of 9 to 10 cents a gallon.

Labor and business are pushing for new transportation taxes, but there’s plenty of uncertainty about whether they will advance – and if they do, everyone will be demanding a piece of the money.

But Clibborn is sympathetic to cries from South King and Pierce that it’s their turn for a major project. And Don Meyer, president of the Port of Tacoma Commission, sees renewed urgency on 167.

“There’s a new sense of momentum,” he said.

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