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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

Category: Transportation
June 18, 2013 at 10:13 AM

Sleepwalking into Washington’s future

When I worked in Phoenix, the three most important players in the local economy were the governor, the mayor and the president of Arizona State University. At the time, it was the nation’s fifth-largest city but the economy was so limited that the people most looked to for progress were all on the taxpayers’ payroll. One would have to go far down a list of “most important” people in Seattle to find a public servant, such is the depth, strength and diversity of this business community. Public servants don’t matter, until they do.

Now we have a state legislature in gridlock. It’s no more important time, with Boeing making critical decisions about the future of the Puget Sound aerospace cluster and not in our favor, for Gov. Jay Inslee to be at the Paris Air Show. But, no. Inslee was forced to cancel because the legislature can’t pass a budget. Our legislative dysfunction is no doubt noticed in Chicago. By contrast, South Carolina will do all that Boeing asks. Critical transportation projects, including an important connection for the Port of Tacoma and the Columbia River Crossing, the latter flush with federal funding, are being stymied by a minority. A hint to the anti-light-rail reactionaries in Vancouver, Wash.: “Those people” drive, they don’t stoop to take light rail. Rail is a vital component for the future and Vancouver’s viability as part of the Portland metro area. Meanwhile, the University of Washington and other institutions of higher education, which are so critical to our ability to lure world talent and maintain our ability to feed the pipeline of big corporations and startups, are staggering under years of budget cuts.

In Seattle, the City Council refused to fund a study of a light-rail crossing of the Ship Canal. This may seem a clever poke in the eye of Mayor Mike McGinn in an election year, but it fails to show any vision. As Seattle reaches for San Francisco-like densities, it has a Phoenix-style transportation system, albeit with more buses and narrower streets. Density is good. But just fixing the streets isn’t good enough to ensure success. Buses alone won’t move people efficiently or pleasantly in a dense city.

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May 28, 2013 at 10:38 AM

The Skagit River bridge shows our future collapsing, too

Investigators at the scene of last week's I-5 bridge collapse near Mount Vernon. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

Investigators at the scene of last week’s I-5 bridge collapse near Mount Vernon. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

The Interstate 5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River was 58 years old. It was built when the U.S. population was about 166 million and the Northwest was a far-away place for most Americans and much less built up. Hundreds more bridges in Washington are vulnerable.  The average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is 42 years. the seasonal mudslides along the rail line north of Seattle, first built in the late 19th century, are a scandal of sloth and aimlessness. Sometimes I think we are living off the investments of previous generations with the obliviousness of the characters in the movie Idiocracy . This would be an excellent time to be repairing existing roads and bridges, as well as spending on a more diverse multi-modal system, including expanding and rebuilding our passenger train system and adding capacity to major freight corridors. It would put people to work at a time of high unemployment, more than pay for itself in long-term productivity improvements and interest rates are incredibly low. Even better if we make our bridges here, instead of buying them from China.

Yet I’m not optimistic that this most recent evidence of our failing infrastructure will be a wake-up call any more than the lethal Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007. An $8.5 billion transportation bill is bottled up in Olympia. The critical Columbia River Crossing is stymied because some in Vancouver, Wash., are afraid of light rail. In the other Washington, the misbegotten culture of austerity and sequester is making it impossible to do much more than tread water, if that.

To be sure, the infrastructure debate is complex. The United States ranks 7th on the latest Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Council. That doesn’t seem to show a nation in crisis, although we did fall two notches from 2011-2012. Boondoggles do happen, although more often on roads and freeways we don’t need than with light rail and transit. Funding streams are distorted and as often steered by powerful members of Congress as by actual need (wait for the federal money to be spent dredging eastern harbors to the detriment of Seattle and Tacoma).

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April 8, 2013 at 9:50 AM

Keep on truckin’ — view from a tough business

Last week I wrote a commentary on the deplorable working conditions of short-haul truckers at the Port of Seattle. The drivers, who face rotten wages and lack of benefits, are also only allowed to use two portable toilets at the terminal entrance. This brought an interesting response from my go-to guy in the trucking industry, Steve Gordon of Pacific-based Gordon Trucking. He said I “should keep in mind those deplorable restroom facilities are not at all uncommon in our industry in general.”

There are plenty of loading docks at Fortune 500 companies where we do work regularly where our relatively more “professional” drivers in our segment of the business are told that the restrooms aren’t for them.  Then to add the cherry on top, you get municipalities like those down here in the Sumner/Auburn/Kent valley that have ok’d lots of warehousing, but won’t OK a truck stop or rest area.

Where do they think truck drivers are supposed to park and take rest breaks? They can’t merely levitate outside these facilities for hours on end. So we then end up with trucks parked on freeway off ramps and city streets, neither of which is a good thing, further reinforcing that negative perception and making it less likely to get an adequate facility.

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October 3, 2011 at 10:00 AM

The real Solyndra problem

As you know, the California solar energy company Solyndra received a $525 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, made some bad bets about the direction of raw materials prices and technology, forcing it to file for bankruptcy protection. This has produced a House investigation, with Solyndra executives taking the Fifth. If they were investment bankers, this would be another day at the office, but never mind that.

To the critics that say the Obama administration’s effort to seed a renewable energy sector with $22 billion in loan guarantees, former Reagan administration trade and commerce official Clyde Prestowitz says:

These are precisely the wrong conclusions to be drawn from the episode. As a former director of new product development at Scott Paper Company, I can tell you that any corporation or venture capitalist would be happy if as many as one in ten investments in new products and ventures paid off. The Solyndra loan guarantee of $535 million represents only about 2 percent of the Energy Department’s $40 billion portfolio of loan guarantees whose recipients mostly seem to be doing pretty well. Indeed, the number of jobs in the U.S. solar industry has doubled to 100,000 since 2003.

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August 17, 2011 at 9:45 AM

Tunnel should be only start of focus on infrastructure

Beyond its political implications, the overwhelming voter approval for building the Highway 99 tunnel will boost the Seattle economy. It will mean $2 billion in infrastructure spending and the attendant jobs here at a time when most of America is falling apart with no hope in sight. It is also the least invasive of the options for the Port of Seattle, no small thing when the seaport is facing intense new competition from Prince Rupert, B.C., a widened Panama Canal and soon-to-be-widened Suez Canal.

For all its risks, the deep-bore tunnel is the kind of infrastructure that will also boost productivity in the long-term by the safe movement of people and goods, replacing the quake-unsafe viaduct. Opening up the waterfront will present one of the West Coast’s best opportunities for new private-sector development.

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May 27, 2011 at 9:30 AM

The viaduct and the American infrastructure crisis || Vote in the poll

As Seattle continues to consider considering how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the Urban Land Institute held its spring conference last week in Phoenix. Among the speakers was Howard Roth of Ernst & Young, who discussed the huge and growing gap in strategic infrastructure between the United States and its competitors.

“China, India and Brazil have all embarked upon strategic infrastructure programs and will invest about $1 trillion each over the next three to five years in high speed rail, new highways, toll roads and urban transit in efforts to improve or solidify their global economic positions over the next few decades and into the future,” he said. The relatively small infrastructure component of the Obama stimulus, $20 billion, peaked in 2010 and will start trailing off. Even with its austerity program, the United Kingdom will spend $326 billion over the next five years on rail, energy production, and broadband access.

According to an Ernst & Young study, “lack of an ongoing, sustainable and strategic commitment to rebuild and expand its infrastructure will begin to seriously weaken the U.S.’s competitive position in the coming years.” It goes on, “In contrast with its global competition, the United States is lurching along a problematic course–potentially losing additional ground. After more than 30 years of conspicuously underfunding infrastructure and faced with large budget deficits, increasing numbers of national and local leaders have come to recognize and discuss how to deal with evident problems. But a politically fractured government has mustered little appetite to confront the daunting challenges…”

You can download the entire report at:

http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/2011_infrastructure_report_settin

g_strategic_priorities/$FILE/Real%20Estate_Infrastructure_2011.pdf

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March 3, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Don’t be railroaded into myths about trains and transit: They’re essential to the future

Ridership may go up and down for Sound Transit, but it is essential infrastructure for a prosperous Northwest in the decades to come, particularly commuter rail and light rail. Gasoline prices are only going to head higher in the long run, electric cars will be expensive and are not a power source, so offering the choice of a robust multi-modal transit system is essential for competitiveness.

Some conservatives make a fetish out of opposition to transit and trains, for reasons that elude me (anti-urban bias, money from the oil companies, ???). A host of myths are thrown out about rail. In reality, no transportation system in the world exists without public subsidies, and America heavily subsidizes the automobile and airlines to the detriment of what was once the world’s finest rail system. Roads and freeways do not “pay for themselves.” Also, Amtrak is very highly patronized and would be more so if schedules were more frequent and convenient. The success of the Cascades here shows this, as does the relatively abundant rail service in California. As for light rail, one of the most successful systems is in road warrior Dallas, which just opened a 28-mile extension.

Now China and other nations are rapidly catching up with Europe and Japan in high-speed rail, and Europe is expanding its systems. High-speed rail offers faster service and more energy efficiency on numerous city-pair routes. They understand the need for rail in the mix to save fuel and address climate change. In America, we’re fighting over just creating higher-speed rail. In fact, almost a century ago 100-mile-per-hour trains were common here. Now Amtrak is often limited to 79 mph outside the Northeast Corridor. And even the Northwest Corridor is not true high-speed rail, from 120 mph to more than 220 mph. (We need to expand freight capacity, too — something Wall Street has resisted, not wanting private railroads to reinvest in themselves).

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December 10, 2010 at 9:40 AM

Infrastructure spending a bright spot for Seattle economy

Here comes a local infrastructure investment boom. There’s the $3.1 billion Highway 99 corridor, including the deep-bore tunnel beneath downtown Seattle; the $4.6 billion 520 bridge and approaches; the $1.9 billion university light-rail extension, and $750 million for improving passenger train capacity and speeds — even if not true high-speed rail.

In addition to helping transportation and the general good (and I know the tunnel will be endlessly debated), the projects will undeniably put people to work in one of the worst hurt sectors, construction, as well as helping a variety of subcontractors and business services. This is a big deal at a time when the expansion, such as it is, remains fragile and uneven.

I worked in Denver in the early 1990s, and the city was cushioned against that recession by building Denver International Airport, the first phase of light rail and other projects. These public investments in infrastructure return their costs, as opposed to, say, endless military entanglements and billions lost to warlords (and bankers).

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June 18, 2010 at 10:00 AM

America and big oil: We wish we knew how to quit you

On Tuesday, President Obama told the nation, “the tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” Today he’s in Columbus touting federal stimulus money going to…a road project.

Last year alone, the stim put more than $100 billion into highways and the auto industry. This as transit systems around the nation were suffering and cutting service, Amtrak remained a hostage to politics, and high-speed rail continued to be a dream to study — even as our competitors already have it and are building more. It’s been shown that road projects don’t ease unemployment. It’s not even true that “roads pay for themselves,” even without factoring in the unfunded externalities such as the cost of sprawl, pollution and environmental damage.

Most of all, the massive new highway projects planned around the country continue our dependence on fossil fuels — with major changes in ways to power most cars years away if ever — and deprive Americans of transportation choices.

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Comments | More in Environment, Sustainability, Transportation, Urban issues

April 9, 2010 at 9:45 AM

McGinn is on the right track with light rail; the housing delusion continues

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is right to make the case for redesigning the 520 replacement bridge to include light rail. The world faces a future of higher energy costs, whether Americans want this or not. It doesn’t really matter what we want. We can want a pony. But the energy future is coming no matter how much we drill, baby. Electric cars? Maybe, but they’ll still be more expensive and require plenty of fossil-fuel “inputs.”

As a result, the metros that can offer the most transportation choices, especially retrofitting suburbia with trains and rail transit, will be the most sustainable and economically viable. China gets this, which is why it is in a crash program including subways and high-speed rail that America is still not building. The suburban retrofit has gotten little attention, but it’s vital, would also create new jobs, and is actually doable on portions of the East Side. We should be moving with a sense of urgency on I-90 and 520.

McGinn will probably lose. The process-is-everything ethos here can drag on for years until it can’t, and now “everybody” is ready to go, whatever the wisdom of continuing dependency on single-occupancy car trips. It’s funny that Seattle claims green cred yet always looks enviously at Portland, which continues to build light-rail, including a new bridge totally dedicated to transit. In reality, our metro area wants that pony — to be green, but still keep building a 1965 transportation system. But the 1965 energy world is not coming back, no matter what we want. No matter, even, what Microsoft wants.

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