Kent: former farm town living through transportation growth pains

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Laura Pierce
Reporter Newspapers
Kent is a thriving city of neighborhoods, retail and warehouses – and nowhere is that growth more apparent than a weekday rush hour.
Lines of commuters crawl along with caravans of freight trucks, while trains close down crossings across the city on two sets of tracks.
On the one hand you could say Kent has it all: listed in the top 10 neighborhoods of King County by Seattle Monthly this year for its entertainment and shopping venues. Considered an epicenter of Puget Sound freight commerce. Poised to become a regional banking center within the next decade.
But wending its way through all the good things about Kent is a transportation system that is not so good.
“Our transportation system is exactly that – a system,” said Ben Wolters, Kent’s economic development director. “It has a number of interactive components.”
Right now those components aren’t working very well together.
Wolters outlined the bigger issues: the conflict between rail and road traffic; lack of a better freight corridor forcing more trucks on roads better designed for smaller vehicles, growing congestion on the highways surrounding the city (the nearby intersection of state routes 405 and 167 is one of the most congested in the state) and the sheer quantity of people and goods moving in and out of the city.
Wolters noted the issue boils down to dollars.
“This speaks to the challenge of trying to fund transportation projects in Washington state,” he said. “That’s really why we’ve had these issues so long – we’ve not found a way to fund these long-term infrastructure needs.”
Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke described the former farming town as grappling with major growing pains.
“What is the biggest challenge is that the city of Kent was built as a small city,” she said. “It is now an urban center. We are a city with three hills, a river valley, two major rail lines and we are on the thoroughfare between two ports (Seattle and Tacoma.) We really do attract a mix of demands on our transportation system.
“It really strains a system or a network that was put in place to accommodate a small, rural town.”

What happened?
During the 1970s and 1980s, Kent’s economic growth, Wolters said, was “explosive.”
Thanks to plenty of raw, flat land in the valley, a friendly tax climate and a central location between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Kent was a beacon for freight interests, which helped it to evolve from farmland to an economic powerhouse.
“The focus in Kent on warehouse distribution that was established historically, was larger than in other cities,” Cooke said. “We have many more warehouses than other cities do.”
Thanks to the rail lines and the warehouse space, manufacturing interests also gravitated to the Kent Valley. And as these businesses have grown in Kent, so too have their employee bases.
In some respects, it’s a little too much of a good thing.
Last year, just before the recession hit, Kent was at 80,000 jobs, with a population that was nearly the same, Wolters said.
That 1:1 ratio, he added, “is actually much higher than what you often see in South County jurisdictions. It certainly puts us closer to Seattle and Bellevue in terms of jobs versus population.”
And through it all, runs a transportation system that has become increasingly overburdened, with fewer dollars to go into it.
Today, the city sees an estimated 250,000 car trips within its borders. The 70 or so trains that go through the city each day close down traffic on city streets an average of 2.5 hours each day.
“The economic growth has outgrown the pace we’ve had for transportation improvements,” Wolters said. In South King County, “we’re by far the largest,” he adding, noting Kent saw “well over $7.5 billion dollars in gross business activity.”
Cooke noted one recent economic change – thanks to the state – that has actually hurt the city having so much warehouse and freight-related space.
It used to be that every time a product was ordered from a warehouse, the city in which that warehouse was located would receive sales-tax proceeds on the transaction. But under the streamlined sales tax, which the state enacted in 2008, the sales tax now goes to the city where the sale occurred, as opposed to where the item was being shipped from.
While warehouse cities like Kent do get some mitigation funding from the state to balance out that change, Cooke said it isn’t nearly what the city used to get under the old system.
“We’ve now lost close to $4 million a year from streamlined sales tax,” Cooke said, adding that amount is somewhat lessened with state mitigation funds.
But road maintenance – especially that pertaining to the quantity of trucking traffic here – continues, meaning fewer dollars that can be pumped into transportation needs.
Another major issue that Kent – as well as other Puget Sound cities must contend – is how to fix roads in places where there simply isn’t revenue coming in – such as neighborhoods.
“When we don’t have new development, who picks up the tab?” Cooke asked, noting the city’s quantity of older, established neighborhoods (which contribute to Kent’s quality of life) that are in need of things like curbs, gutters or sidewalks. Of city road maintenance, she noted, “it is a constant cycle.”

Solutions
Kent, as well as the rest of the Puget Sound area, won’t be able to escape the increasing growth. But there are things that will ease its continued transition from small town to big city.
Describing a Puget Sound population that is expected to grow to 1.5 million in the next 30 years, “Kent’s population is expected to grow with the rest of the region,” said King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, whose district includes Kent. “We have to find a revenue source (for transportation) that goes beyond the gas tax.
“More and more we’re seeing hybrids on the roads, and in the next couple of years, we’ll be seeing electric cars. Those people are not paying the same to use the roads as those of us running exclusively on gasoline.
“I think the tolling is coming; I think the question is the matter of degree.”
Alternative modes of transportation also would go a long way in offsetting the continued growth of commuter traffic coming out of Kent.
“Fixed rail will become more popular, because it is the most dependable,” Patterson said. “You know that even if it starts to snow at 4 p.m., you’ll be at the station the same time as if it were July.”
Cooke agreed that other modes of transportation for commuters are part of Kent’s future.
“Our roads are reaching a point where we can’t afford to have everybody using a car,” Cooke said.
But she added those other modes of transportation, especially in the case of buses, will become more accepted as they increase their frequency of runs, as well as ease of use.
“I think it’s really a chicken-and-egg issue,” Cooke said. “I think people would use those options if they were more consistent. We’ve been increasing the amount of certain (bus) routes in Kent, but there is a maximum elasticity on how long someone’s going to wait. And then there is the knowledge about how to use a bus. It’s just that the system is foreign to people. It needs frequency; it needs outreach.”
As far as freight traffic, the problem is more regional in nature.
State Route 509, envisioned in the 1960s as a freight corridor between Seattle and Tacoma, remains unfinished. Its completion could mean a major incentive for freight traffic coming through Kent.
“It’s on the radar,” Patterson said, noting there is a working group that continues to meet on the project. “It’s ready to go. All the environmental review is done and the permitting. It will take a commitment from the state to fund it.”
Rail crossings are another major part of the picture to continued freight mobility in Kent. In fact, Wolters said the crossings are one of Kent’s highest priority traffic issues, in his book.
“Our greatest issues are conflict between rail and road traffic,” he said.
But it’s going to take dollars to do the work, as well as the ongoing need to maintain city streets and increase capacity. Wolters said the city considering several options for revenue, including traffic-impact fees, and the possibility of forming what he called “transportation utilities.”
And as difficult as Kent’s transportation picture has become, Wolters pointed out a major bright spot.
The city may have congestion, but “I’d rather have that problem than the problem of empty roads because there is no economic activity going on,” he said. “We all live with it. We all commute to work, whether it’s by car or bicycle or train. We all at moments have expressed our frustration, but we’re also very pleased to be able to get to a job. It’s a balancing act.”
Laura Pierce is Editor of the Kent Reporter. She can be contacted at editor@kentreporter.com.