Road Work Ahead?

By Breanne Coats, April 1, 2013, The Business Examiner

After years of championing the completion of State Route 167, the South Sound business community is close to finally seeing some major steps taken to fund this major infrastructure undertaking.

“It’s our no. 1 project,” said Tom Pierson, president & CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s more than the port. It’s more than the Tideflats and warehouse districts. It grows downtown. It grows Pierce County and grows our whole region.”

The good news came in late February, when Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn and members of the committee revealed the “Connecting Washington” transportation package.

The legislative proposal would fund nearly $10 billion in transportation projects across the state, including what was termed the Puget Sound Gateway, which would connect both SR 167 and King County’s State Route 509 with Interstate 5. In addition, this package would include funds to create a new flyover between SR 167 and Interstate 405, as well as funds to reconstruct several key interchanges near Joint Base Lewis-McCord.

The good news, though, comes with a catch: Just because the Transportation Committee has created the package, it does not mean the Legislature will approve the needed funding.

“The business community, local governments, labor (and) environmentalists have all stepped forward and said it’s time to make the next round of investments in our transportation system,” said Sean Eagan, Port of Tacoma director of government affairs. “We need to make sure our lawmakers are hearing from their constituents in general.”

Eagan said a lot of the blurriness of the state budget situation comes down to the fact that the politicians are having to juggle a variety of priorities and it’s hard for those on the outside to tell what issues they will eventually vote on.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber reached out to its members last month asking them to reach out to their state representatives and senators.

“During a Legislative session, you always need voices heard, and individual testimonies speak louder than anything,” Pierson said.

Why fight for SR167

Eagan said for the Port of Tacoma completing State Route 167 is a priority because it improves mobility and creates economic vitality and jobs.

“The business community should be caring about this because it will improve their ability to get their product to market,” Eagan said.

Schnitzer Steel joined the SR167 Completion Coalition because it is one of the companies Eagan was talking about.

“It’s going to assist in creating a better freight mobility for all the companies that utilize the trucking industry to move their goods around,” said Louise Bray, Schnitzer Steel governmental and public affairs manager. “We will be able to get our trucks up to Seattle faster than we can now because there will be less congestion.”

When asked why speeding up the delivery process was important to Schnitzer Steel, Bray was short and quick with her answer: Time is money.

But Pierson doesn’t believe it should just be direct beneficiaries of SR167 that push for this project.

“I don’t think there is a business that isn’t affected in a positive fashion,” Pierson said, adding that if a rising tide affects all boats, then people should consider this more than a rising tide. “(It’s) a tsunami.”

Toby Murray, president of Murray Pacific, said he supports the completion of SR167, even though his business doesn’t directly benefit from it.

“I’m just a long-term businessperson in Tacoma that knows what a dramatic improvement the construction of 167 would have on all traffic and specifically helping our port become more competitive,” he said.

Murray admits that, of course, a container company would have more interest in getting this project done, but he believes every business in the area should support it because of the economic prosperity and job creation it could bring.

“If my community and my state benefit from all that I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “It’s a huge project for the whole state.”

And many companies understand this project will impact more than just South Sound businesses.

The Washington State Potato Commission, for example, decided to back the project since 40 to 50 percent of the 10 billion pounds of potatoes produced in Washington are shipped through Port of Tacoma and Port of Seattle.

“It’s important to be able to have that flexibility to move through to the ports,” said Matt Harris, assistant executive director and also director of government affairs for the commission. “When we are looking at SR167, the value of being able to complete that project it’s critical to stay competitive domestically, but also competitively globally.”

Eagan said the concerns about traffic congestion due to not having SR167 as an option right now for businesses to use is a problem for the port.

“We can’t point to a company that left, but we can point to missed opportunities that we have had,” he said. “That’s the name of the game.”

And Eagan said it’s going to be necessary for the Port of Tacoma to step up its game, since places like Canada are investing in their transportation infrastructure.

“If we want to be able to compete we have to make some investments here in Washington state,” he said.

The upside to the whole State Route 167 project, according to Murray, is that it appears more than the Port of Tacoma and local business leaders understand the value of getting this project complete.

“We are very much on the radar and very much the focus of some very promising legislation,” he said. “Having said all that, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

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