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Local leaders grapple with problems posed by crumbling freight corridors

Commissioners from the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, business owners, labor leaders, and the mayors of Auburn and Kent met at Auburn City Hall last Thursday to talk about the problems posed by aging freight routes within Green River valley cities.

From more than an hour's worth of give and take emerged something politicians and leaders rarely reach these days — consensus.

Consensus, that is, that most of the freight routes along which goods flow from valley warehouses to the two ports — especially to Tacoma — are falling apart or on the cusp of falling apart, while federal and state governments that once helped cities pay for construction and maintenance plead poverty.

Agreement also that if money can't be found, the fallout would cripple the local economy, hand much of the Port of Tacoma's business to aggressive rival ports on the Gulf and East coasts, and possibly reduce the Port of Tacoma to "a backwater," among ports.

"The reality is if our freight doesn't move, and if we don't remain in a competitive position, we're going to lose," said Port of Tacoma Commissioner Don Meyer.

"We're talking about how to make Puget Sound successful," added Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis, whose city is part of the second largest warehouse and manufacturing base on the West Coast. "Because if we don't, there are enough cases in history of backwater ports that just kind of dwindled out of existence, and the peoples' jobs with them."

In the end, officials agreed to form a new coalition to press state and federal governments for funding.

Auburn Public Works Director Dennis Dowdy struck a sober note from the start, displaying a survey map that listed the current conditions of local freight routes within the various cities, those routes being the so-called "last mile," of the link between warehouse and port.

Most of those "last-mile routes," are deteriorating, their traditional funding sources wasted by initiatives, the state's passage of the Streamlined Sales Tax in 2008 and the protracted recession.

"The map tells us that we're losing the battle, and generally how fast we are losing the battle," Dowdy said, adding that the nine cities that are the heart of the valley's industrial and warehousing base have a backlog of about $127 million worth of road work that must be done.

Dowdy quoted a local road contractor who told him recently that it would take about $170 million over 10 years — 30 percent of it going to labor — to get the last-mile freight routes back into top condition. The same contractor, Dowdy said, estimated that a full 65 percent of every paving dollar spent in the region every year returns to the local economy in the form of jobs, services and more.

Most of the cities consider ports and the infrastructure required as "absolutely a necessity" for the region's survival, said Lewis.

Valley mayors have recently been looking at what is happening with the port in Savannah, Ga., where the total investment to take advantage of new traffic through the Panama Canal to $600 million, and with the ports of New York and Detroit, which are adding $80-100 million projects to their list.

"I think it's time that we do something like that," Lewis said.

City at a crossroads

Lewis said Auburn is at a crossroads, and that its City Council is considering changes to ordinances that would allow multi-family uses on what at present are warehouse, industrial and distribution areas. The City, he said, would still have manufacturing, but the warehousing and distribution capability would start going away because the City doesn't have any way to replace the yearly $3 million it lost to the Streamlined Sales Tax and the $30 million it lost to voter initiatives.

Previously, Washington retailers collected local sales tax based on the jurisdiction from which a product was shipped or delivered — the "origin" of the sale. Today they must collect based on the destination of the shipment or delivery - the "destination" of the sale. State Transportation Commission Chair Dan O'Neal cited past successes with Fast Corridors, a now defunct program that once funded 16 local construction projects designed to speed up the passage of freight. Among those projects was the Charles Booth Bridge over C Street and the bridge over the railroad tracks on South 277th.

Fast Corridors, O'Neal said, was a model of cooperation.

"The problem is that a lot of that money was federal money, and the money, called 'earmarks,' is no longer there, or least it hasn't been," Meyer said. "We finished about 16 17 of the 30 projects, and then it drifted off because a lot of the federal money was gone. We are going to need another push for federal support, but we also are also going to need to get state attention," O'Neal said.

Meyer said proponents must tackle the problem from a systems standpoint. Yes, he said, State Route 167 or 509 are important, but to get a tangible return on the investment, everybody needs to make sure that the last mile works as well as the major projects.

"Fast Corridors was a good project, but it was also multiple projects implemented in a unifying way that worked for everybody. It worked for the ports, and it worked for the local communities that were impacted. ... We need to be unified in the policy advocacy piece at all levels at this stage ... The problem in this country is that we treat infrastructure funding as if it's optional and it's partisan. It has to be a nonpartisan issue," Meyer said.

Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke said her city lost $5 million yearly to Streamlined Sales Tax and that the loss of those funds has crippled the City's ability to pay for street maintenance and repair.

"We are in a dilemma now. We can't say we have this long list of priority projects, it's like everything's a priority, and that's really what (Dowdy's) map shows us...Everything is a priority. So we find ourselves in no position to maintain let alone improve the infrastructure and we are finding our partners at the federal and state levels also without money ... We have to shift the paradigm, because we can't rely on way it's always been."

Cooke also stressed the need to educate the public about what's at stake. Last April, voters in Auburn rejected a $59 million road bond to pay for maintenance and repair on the city's arterials.

Cooke offered her assistance to whatever the new group becomes.

"Let's look at how we can, perhaps, realign the focus. Because what is of interest to the ports is of interest as a base support for economic development for all of us. I also know that from my perspective as a mayor ... at this local level, literally, is where the rubber meets the road, or where s... happens," Cooke said.

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