Without road-and-transit bill, slow-motion derailment

Editorial, May 19, 2015, The News Tribune

Infrastructure is a famously unsexy subject. No one’s interested in trestles, railroad ties, bridge decks and the like. Until something breaks.


Then you can get a disaster like last Tuesday’s Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, which killed eight and injured more than 200 people.


America’s passenger train service is an embarrassment. The long-distance runs outside the densely populated Northeast are inherently money-losers, but there’s no reason the high-demand corridors between Philadelphia, New York and Boston shouldn’t offer high-speed, up-to-date train service. Americans who visit countries like Japan, France and China often come back shocked at how backward the U.S. system looks in comparison.


But train crashes and bridge collapses are only the most visible symptoms of infrastructure failure. More subtle is the creeping obsolescence of highway and rail systems in the face of growing populations and changing needs.


That kind of decline has been long been happening with this state’s transportation infrastructure. The most pressing problem is congestion and the slow strangulation of freight movement. The Legislature could do something about it tomorrow: approve a transportation package that — in different forms — has already cleared both the state Senate and House of Representatives.


So far, the Republican and Democratic lawmakers haven’t made the necessary compromises. Failure to do so before they go home would be beyond shameful.


We’ve often pointed out the urgency of connecting state Route 167 from where it now ends in Puyallup to Interstate 5 and the Port of Tacoma. This is part of a larger project — the Puget Sound Gateway — that would also connect state Route 509 in King County to I-5 and create new interchanges on the freeway.


Without this work, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma will continue to lose shipping to rival ports in Canada, California and Mexico whose terminals can offer faster overland shipping to major cities.


The $15 billion transportation bill infrastructure would do far more than pour concrete for megaprojects.


It would also fund more than 100 low-profile jobs, most of them decidedly unsexy. Safety work on state Route 2, for example. A widening of Interstate 90 on Snoqualmie Pass. A bus transfer shelter in Silverdale. Flood protection on I-5.


The House version would give Sound Transit the authority to ask voters for $15 billion for a third phase of light rail expansion and other mass transit projects in the Puget Sound region. The Senate’s would authorize $11 billion.


On this point, the Senate should defer to the House. A $15 billion package would allow the extension of light rail from Sea-Tac Airport all the way to the Tacoma Dome, connecting both Tacoma and Federal Way to Sound Transit’s expanding light rail system in Seattle and Bellevue. An $11 billion package would offer no guarantee of a Pierce County connection.


The derailment in Philadelphia was dramatic and horrifying. In Washington, a failure to fund road and transit improvements would produce slow-motion failure. By degrees, traffic chokepoints will throttle jobs and impede traffic and shipping across the state. Lawmakers must act this session to stop the slide.

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