Seattle-area residents who are frustrated with congestion, which is just about everyone, should be pleased to know that Congress is beginning to notice. The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Ground Transportation held a hearing in Seattle Tuesday on this region’s increasingly notorious transportation ailments — and yesterday took the new Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver, B.C., to meet with officials there.
Chaired by Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., the subcommittee especially is interested in learning how inter-governmental cooperation along what is called the “Cascadia Corridor” between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore., can provide ideas on the future of U.S. transportation corridors generally.
One idea the congressmen will study is the possibility of using more north-south Amtrak intercity service — as well as Sound Transit commuter rail service — to reduce some of the pressure on the I-5 freeway, which also runs on a north-south axis.
Joining the congressional committee for much of the tour was, appropriately, the Amtrak Reform Council that Congress and the president appointed to look at Amtrak operations as a whole. The council held its own meeting Tuesday as it is studying the potential of a corridor approach to improving passenger rail service around the country.
So, what’s the big deal with “transportation corridors”?
Simply put, it is that the people who live in certain identifiable stretches of connected territory, regardless of political boundaries, tend to contribute to one another’s transportation woes and, therefore, working together can best provide the means to resolve the problems. By that theory, it is a waste for each community to work without reference to the others, and to work with merely incremental solutions. Close consultation and collaboration among connected communities in the region is needed to get enough financial and political clout to make bold changes.
Trains are an encouraging example of the corridor approach, but they are only one small part of an eventual inter-modal package of solutions. To the Ground Transportation Subcommittee’s primary interest in improvements for cars, buses, trucks and trains, add planes and ferries — and better connections among them all — to get a picture of what our particular inter-modal package should include.
When national observers talk about regional transportation corridors, the Cascadia Corridor is almost always mentioned as one of the most conspicuous. It extends in a roughly 50-mile-wide band north along I-5 from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., and is constricted on the east by the Cascade Mountains and on the west by the coastal mountains of Oregon, Puget Sound in Washington and the Georgia Basin in the lower mainland of British Columbia. Within much of that band, population is being squeezed into ever-tighter density. Water-wedged Seattle, drowning in traffic, is right in the center.
If Cascadia is home to a host of shared transportation problems, it also is home to some shared opportunities. Discovery Institute in Seattle and the Cascadia Institute in Vancouver joined state, provincial, local, port and private-sector transportation leaders in briefing visitors on current plans to:
-better connect corridor air and marine ports, ferry terminals, highways and regional transit;
-coordinate Sound Transit commuter rail with the new Amtrak Cascades international service and increased freight rail activity;
-link shippers, rail, trucking and state and federal inspection services along I-5 through technology to relieve congestion at borders and along the corridor;
-provide pre-arrival border passes for high-frequency, low-risk business travelers from Asia to clear Seattle-Tacoma International and Vancouver, B.C., airports and travel unimpeded across the land border;
-upgrade highway and rail bridges across the Columbia River for people and goods with a long-term, cross-state financing and livable community strategy;
-expand SkyTrain and airport transit in Vancouver, B.C., extend high-speed rail to Whistler Mountain and divert highway through-traffic from the downtown core.
But the visitors also learned plenty about the unresolved problems of this region, from declining freight and passenger mobility on the Seattle waterfront to the overstacked and unpredictable Route 520 floating bridge, to the traffic-jam-packed stretch of I-5 through downtown Seattle, to the easily flooded I-5 at Chehalis, to the tendency of north-south traffic east of the Cascades to back into I-5 on its way south to California and add to the congestion on this side.
They also heard some creative ideas for solving those problems, whether tunnels, freeway redesigns new corridors or better transit options. That most of the ideas are emerging on a regional basis, each gaining credibility from the others, should make the corridor approach as a whole more credible to Congress.