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Completing SR-167: Washington and America’s Infrastructure in Microcosm

04 May 2015

As we travelled through Washington on the original Dire States tour, we met longshoremen and Port of Tacoma representatives who shared with us the tale of SR-167: the first mile/last mile of goods that come through the port. It’s a 6-mile stretch of road that connects the port to eastern Washington and much of the outside world. In a way, it carries the weight of the region on its shoulders.

When the current highway was designed 30 years ago, that 6-mile stretch was included in the plan, but funding and logistics halted construction. The time may have come to complete the road and provide the region with an economic shot in the arm thanks to comparable transportation bills put forth by both the Washington state House and Senate. The state legislature enters a 30-day special session that will begin on April 29 to negotiate these bills and additional legislation.

Between the two bills, legislators are considering packages ranging from $15.1 – $15.5 billion dollars, funded in large part by an 11.7 cent-per-gallon gas tax increase.  Washington is the latest in a line of states to take road funding/growth into its own hands – and follows a trend throughout the country: voters and legislators are willing to look at user fee increases as a method of funding infrastructure projects – especially as fuel and material costs are (relatively) low, and economic gains can be tied directly to the work.

Why SR-167?

America’s infrastructure problem is about more than just roads. It’s about everything that travels on those roads, how efficiently it gets there and the economic vitality of the communities at either end of the highway. The interconnectedness of commerce, trade and our highway system is evident in the case of SR-167. Congestion, inefficient travel routes and the hassle of navigating surface streets for haulers have caused some businesses to look elsewhere.

“Our customers want to ensure that they have efficient gateways through which to move their cargo,” says Sean Eagan, government affairs director for the Port of Tacoma. “They do not have to move it through Puget Sound. They could go through Southern California, through Canada, through other gateways. Investments in our infrastructure improve the efficiency of moving cargo, it makes our gateway more attractive to customers, and as a result, it creates thousands of jobs associated with the moving of that cargo.”

It’s that risk – that importers and exporters will use alternate ports – that drives up the cost of goods and makes it more difficult for companies that produce goods in the state of Washington to get to market. The Puget Sound Gateway project (funded in these bills, which extends State Routes 167 and 509) is seen as key to enhancing the state’s economic competitiveness, both nationally and globally, by better connecting the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle to key distribution centers in King and Pierce counties and to Eastern Washington.

“We know what’s going on [in Canada] as far as their transportation system,” says Paul Mayo, western area manager for Flatiron, a heavy civil contractor. “With subsidized railroads and their work on their port up there – we are going to end up losing big. Failure to pass [this legislation] has dire long-term consequences for the Seattle-area market, for all goods, as we compete on the world stage.”

Reducing Gridlock, Improving Maintenance

Eagan sees the current funding negotiations as a positive step forward in cutting down on a major concern for the general public and regional business alike: gridlock.

“The investments associated with the package are going to improve mobility,” he says. “In the case of SR-167, it would improve travel time for individuals going between Tacoma and the eastern part of Pierce County by 15 percent.”

Jerry Vanderwood, the chief lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Washington, agrees with Eagan’s assessment and also notes that years of neglected maintenance has left much of the state’s highway system in need.

“The Puget Sound Regional Council reports that hours of delay on freeways in the congested Seattle area increased 52 percent from 2010 to 2014,” he says. “Plus, the research group TRIP found that throughout Washington, nearly half of major roads and highways are in poor or mediocre condition. A total of 27 percent of Washington bridges show significant deterioration or do not meet current design standards. Statewide, 21 percent of Washington roads are in poor condition and an additional 23 percent are in mediocre condition. Pavement conditions are projected to deteriorate significantly in the next five years unless the state can secure additional funding for pavement preservation and reconstruction.”

For Tom Zamzow, area manager for engineering and construction firm Parsons, he says that deterioration is not something you always see unless you work with it every day.

“It’s obvious to those of us that are close to it, certainly to those of us who are working on it. You see large cracks in bridge columns and rebar sticking out. We know that, when that was originally built, there was 3 inches of concrete over that rebar. It’s been there so long, the concrete has eroded. It’s much more obvious to those of us out on the highway. You just don’t see it when you’re sitting in your car.”

An Economic Boom to the Region

The Port of Tacoma and regional businesses will both benefit from increased accessibility and mobility afforded by the completion of SR-167 if the House and Senate can come together on a package. The legislation will also strengthen the region’s construction industry and spur considerable job development.

“We anticipate that the [legislation] would mean about 100,000 construction jobs during the 16 years of investment,” says Vanderwood. “The multiplier effect is even more impressive. One study shows that just six of the major transportation projects in the package would cost $7 billion, but would yield $42 billion in economic benefits over 30 years.”

“Specific to SR-167, we’re going to see up to 1,000 direct jobs created through the construction of the project,” says Eagan. “You’re going to see similar numbers throughout the state of Washington [on other projects]. In addition to that, you’re going to see economic growth created because of the investments in infrastructure. WSDOT estimated that SR-167 could fuel job growth to the tune of $10.1 billion over the long term because of economic development that will crop up along the highway.”

For companies like Flatiron, that investment commitment is critical to workforce development and solidifying its resources in the region.

“The package is very significant,” says Mayo. “Right now, there is very little project backlog that’s set to key up into the system. We’re very concerned about it. For us, it means opportunity for growth – the same for all of our subcontractors. And material costs are low right now. The time is right for it. Having that nice long steady program out front creates reliability in the workforce and gives people the opportunity to develop.”

Should the legislation pass, Zamzow sees that ripple effect as being most important – improving infrastructure, boosting the economy and leaving it all in a better condition than we found it.

“That then creates additional economic activity and additional benefit for all of us in an expanding economy. That’s the long-term benefit for not only us, but for our grandkids.”

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To add your voice to the conversation, follow the #TranspoNow and #Waleg hashtags on Twitter. For more information on SR-167, visit the SR-167 Completion page on the Port of Tacoma’s website by clicking here. You can also follow the process by following the SR-167 Completion Coalition’s Twitter feed.