Thursday, April 22, 2010

Keeping Up with Other Ports

By Bill Bryant April 2010 

The future of Puget Sound ports and the tens of thousands of jobs they generate in King and Pierce counties depend on Seattle and Tacoma moving freight to the Mid West more efficiently than our competitors.

Those competitors include the ports of British Columbia and, after 2014, when the Panama Canal expands, also Houston, Charleston and Savannah.

Canada understands the connection between jobs and the efficient movement of cargo to the American mid-west. Just two months ago, the Port of Vancouver launched a $392M project that adds 49 acres and increases its capacity. The Port of Prince Rupert, with significant government assistance, is expanding its capacity and by some accounts aspires to move as much cargo as Seattle and Tacoma combined prior to the recession.

Most importantly, with significant federal funds and integrated transportation decision-making, Canada is building a freight corridor from BC directly to Chicago and St. Louis. Canada’s freight corridor is a competitive threat to Puget Sound’s ports. 

nd it’s not just Canada. The governor of Georgia just announced a project to move trucks more efficiently, and the Heartland Corridor that opens this year will shave off a day between the East Coast and the Midwest.

There is no need to hit an alarm bell, but we need to act. The Port of Seattle is.

We rejected new fees to pay for our clean air program.

Third parties determined moving cargo to the Midwest through Puget Sound is the most carbon sensitive route from Asia, and we are talking with shippers about that, and it matters to them.

We have joint marketing efforts with the Port of Tacoma to bring cargo into Puget Sound, and Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani has pulled together the directors of all the other US West Coast ports to collaboratively address common competitive issues.

Over the last ten years, the Port of Seattle spent $45M helping build overpasses and roads important to freight movement, and over the last 15 years, Seattle and Tacoma combined have spent nearly a billion dollars transforming aging port facilities into competitive 21st century terminals.

As a result of these initiatives and capital projects, within port gates, we can increase the volume of marine cargo we move, but as a state, outside port gates, Washington has underinvested in our freight infrastructure, and that could undermine future competitiveness.

To correct this we need to transform how we prioritize and fund transportation projects. The Canadian transport minister recently quipped that one advantage Canada has over the US is that Canadians consider transportation projects strategic investments, and, he said, Americans consider them pork.

He was right. We spread transportation dollars around, rather than focusing on those projects that will generate the most private sector jobs and move the most cargo and people.

Our approach is political, but it is not smart. Some mayors have told me it is easier – not easy, but easier – for them to get funds to build a new transportation project than it is get funds to maintain existing truck routes, even though we have $90M in deferred maintenance for deteriorating truck routes in South King and North Pierce counties. This reveals that our system for setting priorities is broken.

How we fund transportation also needs to be transformed. The fact that the port has spent $45M over the past ten years on roads and overpasses, or that the port needs to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to build a state highway, reveals our system for funding transportation is broken.

The fact that projects that should be funded by the gas tax are being pushed onto local property owners indirectly through ports reveals our system is broken. 

So what do we do?

First, we consolidate decision-making authority on transportation priorities.

Second, we build the projects needed for our corridor. That means finishing highways 509 & 167; maintaining truck routes in and out of distribution centers in South King and North Pierce counties; eliminating rail bottlenecks in Southwest Washington; improving Stampede Pass rail tunnels and building rail overpasses in Kennewick and Yakima.

Third, we support new funding mechanisms such as tolling and public-private sector partnerships.

Fourth, we get going.

Not everyone appreciates the urgency. Earlier this year I was talking with a legislator about finishing highways 509 and 167, and he told me he didn’t think the state could work on those projects for a few more years.

That’s not acceptable.

Canada and Houston and Georgia are not going to politely wait for us to get our act together. If our state government’s governance and financing mechanisms cannot fund the projects we need to nurture our competitiveness and protect our jobs, we should transform our state’s transportation governance and financing. 

Make no mistake, transforming transportation governance and financing will take courage and political will. Legislators will fight to keep control over where transportation dollars are spent. Constituencies will rise up to oppose new construction. Some will oppose private sector involvement in public infrastructure. The dozens of agencies involved in transportation will fight to defend their turf. 

But it is not as if we have much choice. If our jobs and competitiveness depend upon transforming transportation governance and financing, we need to elect leaders who have the courage and political will to do it.

Bill Bryant is chairman of Bryant Christie Inc., and president of the Seattle Port Commission.
The views presented here are entirely his own.