By Brian Beckley
While commuters may lose time and their cool while sitting in traffic, for manufacturers and freight haulers, time spent stuck in traffic has a direct effect on the bottom line.
The Green River Valley manufacturing district, running from Renton to Sumner, accounts for more than 80,000 jobs in the region and helps make the Puget Sound area the second-largest freight and wholesale distribution center on the West Coast, behind only the Los Angeles-Long Beach area.
And at the center of it all is the city of Kent.
“We have businesses that serve every country on the globe that’s legal to trade with,” said Deputy Public Works Director Tim LaPorte. “And they’re all dependent on a system that’s never been completed.”
Kent’s location is the key to its manufacturing and shipping success. Located approximately halfway between the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle, 10 minutes from Sea-Tac Airport and split by two major rail lines, Kent is prime territory for shippers.
Kent also is adjacent to Interstate 5 and is bisected by State Route 167.
“It’s that confluence of transportation corridors and strategic location that makes Kent an attractive place,” said Ben Wolters, the city of Kent’s economic development director.
Because of that, maintaining freight mobility is a prime concern for city officials.
“It’s one of our ongoing challenges,” Wolters said, adding the city’s warehouse and manufacturing business is a “mainstay of Kent’s economy.”
But getting all those tons of freight to the highways and out to the ports sometimes can be a challenge.
LaPorte said the biggest issue is getting trucks into and out of Kent, making the top freight-related priority in the city the completion of state Route 509, which LaPorte said was intended in the 1960s to serve as an additional route between Seattle and Tacoma.
However, though stretches of 509 extend in either direction from the two cities, the vast majority of the roadway remains unfinished.
“Unfortunately we only have either end,” LaPorte said. “If it was completed, it would allow freight to move virtually unimpeded from the Port of Seattle to points south and east.”
For Kent, as well as for commuters in and around the city, the highway would provide a route for trucks that would keep them off the major commuter roads, speeding traffic on the highways and getting the trucks to where they need to go quicker.
“A lot of freight traffic coming from the Port of Seattle and the airport doesn’t really want to get on I-5,” LaPorte said. “They want to get to the valley.”
LaPorte said 509 would connect at Kent-Des Moines Road and provide essentially another collector distributor lane for the interstate and would remove truck traffic from the highway by allowing direct access to Kent.
It would also take some pressure off some of Kent’s east-west routes. The traffic on some, such as 212th Street, is more than 12 percent trucks.
“That’s a very, very high number,” LaPorte said. “One in every 10 vehicles is a truck.
“(SR)509 will distribute the truck traffic more easily and allow them direct access to the valley,” he added.
But access at the north end of Kent’s warehouse area is not the only issue. There is a similar freight backup at the south end.
State Route 167 “also has a major problem at the south end because it doesn’t exist,” LaPorte said.
Calling it “the other end of our story,” LaPorte said SR 167 was designed to go through to the Port of Tacoma and connect to I-5, but the section from Sumner to Tacoma, like 509, has not been completed.
Another problem facing freight haulers in Kent is actually one of the city’s biggest strengths: the dual sets of railroad tracks that run through the center of the city.
More than 60 trains run through the valley every day and every time the crossing arms come down, drivers are losing time and money.
“We have over two-and-a-half hours of delay per day on a 24-hour average in the valley,” LaPorte said, calling the results a “disaster” for traffic. They are the biggest source of delay in the city in terms of traffic.”
“Which adds up to significant cost in terms of manpower and fuel,” Wolters added.
Because of this, Kent is heavily invested in reducing at-grade crossings by building overpasses or tunnels under the tracks as a way to help increase track speeds.
“The only way we can get increased track speeds is to make the rail corridor a safer corridor,” LaPorte said.
Crossing improvements are expensive – about $20 million each – so Kent has to do the work in small batches, cobbling together funding. The city’s Transportation Improvement Plan calls for the elimination of the city’s “worst five:” two on Willis Street, two on 212th Street and one on 228th Street.
In total, LaPorte estimated that $700 million would be needed to complete improvements at all at-grade crossings.
The lack of highway routes and the traffic on those routes also leads truck drivers to take alternate routes through cities, placing undue stress on roadways that were never designed for the weight and traffic of 18-wheelers.
“They fail much quicker than they should,” LaPorte said, leading to an increased burden on local taxpayers.
He noted all of the improvements were necessary not only to keep the region competitive, but also to improve the quality of life, as increased trucks sitting in traffic leads to pollution and dirtier air.
The problem, like most things, is money. Highway work is estimated at more than $1 billion for each project. For perspective, the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built for $750 million.
Both LaPorte and Wolters said Kent were “fans” of the trucks and freight that makes the city’s economy go, but the problems they face are not necessarily Kent-specific, but regional, and should be treated as such and that any transportation improvements – highways, rail, public transportation, light rail, anything – would be helpful to the city.
“We’re a fan of all of the above,” LaPorte said.
Brian Beckley is a writer at the Kent Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.