Solving Traffic Issues for Both Freight and Cars in the Puget Sound Region

In 2009, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, Seattle was ranked 10th in the nation in terms of traffic congestion. Commuters spent hours behind the wheels of their cars, simply looking at the license plates of the cars ahead of them.  Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse in the subsequent years.  In 2012, the city ranked 4th in congestion, according to news reports.  It is a sad statistic, but there are some reasons to be hopeful.  For example, while it’s true that people in the Seattle area are spending longer periods of time in their cars, just trying to move through the city, is likely in part due to road construction.

Because cars share the roads with trucks, congestion also negatively impacts the movement of freight and, ultimately, our region’s economic health.   For many years, state leaders have known that Seattle does not have an efficient system for moving freight, and they have attempted to allocate funds to fix the problem.  In 2005, the state legislature passed an increase in the gas tax – later affirmed by referendum – aimed at funding 274 projects over 16 years, including $542 million for 35 targeted freight mobility projects.

Critical projects being currently undertaken in the Seattle area include the replacement of the Alaska Way Viaduct with the Deep Bore Tunnel and the replacement and widening of the State Route 520 bridge.  Grade separations are being built in South Seattle and throughout the Green River Valley so that cars and trucks will no longer need to stop for passing trains.  The replacement for the South Park Bridge, which had to be closed because it was no longer safe for vehicle traffic, will be completed next year (this is a critical project both for South Seattle neighborhoods and for Boeing freight traffic).  North of downtown Seattle, the Mercer Street corridor is being reworked in a manner that, among other things, will ease the journey of buses and trucks from I-5 to the Port of Seattle’s terminals in North Seattle.

But the 2005 measure does not address all of the state’s transportation needs.  A task force appointed by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire in 2011 estimated that the backlog in funding transportation projects in Washington State is at least $50 billion, though most important needs could be met with the expenditure of $21 billion over ten years.

To meet the Port of Seattle’s 25 year goals to grow seaport cargo throughput to 3.5 million containers per year and to triple air cargo activity at Sea-Tac Airport, it is critical that the state complete the extension of State Route 509 from the airport south to Interstate 5.  Similarly, for the Port of Tacoma to meet its long-term growth goals, the completion of State Route 167 is needed.  Both of those are $1 billion-plus projects however.

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.

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