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Puget Sound Transportation 2002

September 5, 2002

Puget Sound ports get that sinking feeling

  • Scant funding, clogged roads send shippers looking elsewhere
    Special to the Journal

    Port of Tacoma Road overpass
    Courtesy of the Port of Tacoma
    This new $33 million Port of Tacoma Road overpass allows rail and truck traffic to flow more smoothly. FAST Corridor, a multi-agency program, plans 15 such projects — including this one — to improve freight mobility from Everett to Tacoma.

    There has been endless debate on improving transportation in Puget Sound over the past decade, most of it concerning the movement of cars and people. Freight mobility is recognition that the efficient movement of freight is as great a need as that of people and autos.

    Freight transportation is vital to the economic health of all metropolitan areas. Within Puget Sound, it is even more so because of our dependence on port commerce, the need to connect aircraft production facilities throughout the region, and our need to compensate for our relative isolation.

    Freight mobility in Puget Sound is also vital to the rest of the state for transporting agriculture, forest product and general manufacturing to national and international markets. Puget Sound freight mobility is the cornerstone for approximately one out of three jobs in Washington state.

    Like all forms of transportation in Puget Sound, freight transportation projects are desperately short of funds for needed improvements. Although freight has developed a good leadership base over the last half-decade at both the regional and state level, funding remains the key issue.

    Port interest

    The ports of Puget Sound have been quite active in freight mobility, both in funding and leadership. This is due to their collective success in capturing transpacific trade, well beyond that expected from the relatively small size of our local population base. By the mid-1990s Puget Sound containerized traffic was tied with New York as second only to Los Angeles’ Pedro Bay in all of North America. Seattle and Tacoma container traffic is nearly equal to that of the entire North Atlantic, a phenomenal achievement for the region and of great importance to the whole State.

    Port terminals in Puget Sound have been modernized to keep up with increased transpacific business, but by the mid-1990s it became apparent that connecting rail and truck links were becoming congested and there was no planning, let alone funding, to make needed improvements.

    "In Puget Sound congestion is the weak link of an international transportation chain that stretches halfway around the globe."

    Even though Puget Sound containerized port traffic increased over the past decade, there has been a dramatic 50 percent market share loss to Los Angeles and Long Beach of Asian trade. The faster rate of growth of San Pedro Bay ports of Southern California directly results in lost opportunity for Washington producers. The trend is ominous for the future.

    Transportation congestion in Puget Sound is the weak link of an international transportation chain that stretches halfway around the globe. Funding is the issue. While the Los Angeles basin spent approximately $5 billion on inland infrastructure serving their ports over the past half-decade, Puget Sound spent approximately $100 million.

    Legislative leadership of Washington has realized that containerized Asian trade means more than jobs and revenues from imports speeding through the state to distant U.S. markets. It means exceptionally competitive low backhaul rates for Washington’s producers due to the repositioning of empty containers back to Asia.

    Import container trade through Puget Sound also means that the railroads will invest in the necessary and costly improvements needed to connect Washington with other U.S. markets.

    The Legislature’s recognition of freight issues resulted in the creation of the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board, an independent board with responsibility to identify and coordinate state funds into projects designed to help freight movement throughout Washington. A great concept, but funding remains elusive.

    Port transportation needs

    For the ports, the most pressing freight mobility issue is reliable and competitive railroad service. When the big, new container ships started coming into our ports, adequate rail capacity became critical.

    The recent arrival of very large container ships, far larger than can fit through the Panama Canal, doubled the number of trains per ship, which, in turn, increased train peaking conditions as more trains come and go out of Puget Sound — all with tight time schedules. To meet train peaking, the ports and railroads provided additional switching space and tighter coordination of train operations within Puget Sound.

    Increased train traffic also increased vehicular traffic congestion along the region’s rail routes, especially in the communities of the Green River Valley. Both ports depend upon rail services going through each other’s community, a situation that led to joint port cooperation to solve a mutual rail problem.

    A primary freight mobility issue is one of separating trains from vehicular traffic within both ports and along the corridor in between. The potential cost was enormous, but port, railroad, state and local parties developed a plan, generally known as FAST Corridor, to identify the worst places of congestion and develop a funding program that included funds from all parties. The FAST Corridor cooperative effort has become a model for resolving complicated regional freight mobility problems.


    Issues related to trucking are inherently difficult to resolve because trucking uses the same roads as buses and autos. Funding, the core problem of road and highway improvements, also directly impacts trucking.

    Trucking is the lifeblood of the Puget Sound economy. Boeing, for example, requires freight services between factories scattered throughout the region. Some have likened the Puget Sound region as a giant “factory shop floor” in context to Boeing and the use of trucks to connect their widespread plants.

    "Over the last 5 years the Los Angeles basin spent $5 billion on inland infrastructure serving their ports. Puget Sound spent $100 million."

    Every purchase a citizen makes has involved a truck, usually multiple trucks. As trucking becomes increasingly caught up in the region’s congested highway system, costs for consumer goods will go up and we will all be paying more.

    Short of an extremely costly proposal, like truck-only freeway lanes, there is little that can be done for trucking independent of resolving overall regional road infrastructure issues.

    Nonetheless, the status quo won’t work for trucking. Until new or expanded roads are built there are a number of Band-Aids that could help. For example, truck-turn radius standards need to be implemented throughout the region. Truck routes need to be incorporated into jurisdictional planning as part of ongoing transportation-infrastructure improvements.

    Freight mobility leadership

    Leadership for improved freight mobility is largely in place. The Freight Mobility Roundtable, a creation of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Puget Sound Regional Council is an excellent forum for regional freight mobility issues. At the state level, the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board is well situated to take a strong role in freight mobility improvements, along with the state Department of Transportation and respective port districts. All are in need of funding.

    Funding for freight mobility over the past half-decade has been dealt a series of blows at the state level due to a number of fund-limiting initiatives. Likewise, if there is a loss this November of state gas-tax fund increases, it will hit freight mobility hard because the state has been the weak partner in freight improvements, and remaining partners are stretched beyond their collective limits to pay for needed improvements. This is why voter approval of Referendum 51 is so important to the economic health of our state.

    The primary task of freight mobility leadership, in addition to funding, is maintaining the planning momentum they have created. Transportation, by its nature, is corridor related, meaning that multiple jurisdictions must coordinate their actions.

    Ports, the new participants to planning and funding of transportation projects outside their traditional marine (and airport in the case of Sea-Tac) development, must continue, if not strengthen, their leadership role.

    Last, the cities and counties of Puget Sound need to recognize the importance of freight mobility. Railroads are often viewed as inconveniences, as too fast, too noisy or too disruptive to traffic. Trucking, likewise, is often seen as a nuisance, something that is always in the way of autos and buses. Trucks and rail are not viewed as vital elements to regional transportation. New rail and vehicular grade separations between Everett and Tacoma need to continue beyond the current FAST Corridor projects.

    Local governments need to take a stronger leadership role in planning and funding to ensure freight mobility is a regional asset, not our economic Achilles’ heel.

    Paul Chilcote was senior director of intermodal transportation at the Port of Tacoma before his retirement last year. Chilcote has been active in numerous business and professional organizations, including the Washington Public Ports Association and the American Association of Port Authorities.

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