This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Washington is getting a taste of what it’s like to lose a critical stretch of a major highway.
Before it collapsed Thursday, the Skagit River Bridge on Interstate 5 carried roughly 70,000 vehicles a day, more than 8,000 of them trucks. Its collapse severed the main artery that links the economy of the Puget Sound region to Vancouver, B.C.
The disruption shows how one highway fracture can choke the movement of people and goods hundreds of miles away. But Washington has already suffered another – less visible – highway failure that’s done far more damage in recent decades.
Helicopters with camera crews may not be circling it, but the unfinished six-mile gap between state Route 167 and the Port of Tacoma is also strangling commerce and jobs. It’s the economic equivalent of a ruptured freeway no one bothered to fix.
SR 167, which now runs from Interstate 405 in Renton to the Puyallup area, was always supposed to turn west and connect to Interstate 5 and the port.
The extension has been planned for more than 30 years. Right of way has been purchased, environmental preliminaries are complete, and much of the design work is done.
But the concrete isn’t there – which means that Pacific Rim exporters cannot smoothly move their freight past the port, and Washington farmers and manufacturers cannot smoothly move their goods to the port.
The obstruction has been costing the state tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. Increasingly, it is tempting maritime shippers to look for alternative routes to Chicago and other big inland markets.
Six hundred miles north of here, the once tiny but rapidly expanding terminal at Prince Rupert – the location of North America’s deepest ice-free harbor – has suddenly emerged as a ferocious competitor for Puget Sound shipping. One of the Canadian port’s key advantages is an unobstructed railway corridor to the heart of the United States.
The Legislature can counter such threats and capture the economic potential trapped in that Puyallup-to-port gap by funding the Puget Sound Gateway – a $1.8 billion mega-project that would lace together SR 167, I-5 and SR 509 in King County to create a super-corridor for cargo and commuters.
This will require fees, taxes, tolls – and political courage on the part of South Sound lawmakers.
Those were the same ingredients that built the interstate highway system, of which the Skagit River Bridge – completed in 1955 – was a part.
President Dwight Eisenhower and others realized that the interstates would pay for themselves many times over by tying together the economies of American cities. The Puget Sound Gateway would pay the same kind of dividends to Washington state.