Share story

To world travelers, British Columbia’s Vancouver is a bewitching urban jewel with mountains framing seaplanes, cruise ships, high rises and sandy beaches.

It’s also a nitty-gritty trade competitor capable of eclipsing Puget Sound ports as the preferred Northwest gateway to Asia.

If downtown is Vancouver’s heart, the Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative is the muscle. Since 2006, public-private partnerships have fueled $22 billion in trade and mobility investments in Vancouver, Prince Rupert and inland corridors. These include 17 rail overpasses and a 22-mile bypass from the Trans Canada Highway to Port Metro Vancouver’s Roberts Bank Superport.

On a recent tour organized by the Canadian Consulate in Seattle, delegates from the Pacific Northwest Economic Region and Cascadia Academywitnessed a unified Canadian political commitment, liberal public-private partnerships and a “social license” approach to community buy-in for trade and energy projects. Social license means negotiations with First Nations on natural gas and petroleum pipelines.

In Prince Rupert, Port of Seattle Seattle Commissioner Tom Albro marveled at the Gateway’s “alignment of purpose,” from the conservative prime minister to the liberal B.C. premier and the union dock worker.

Public tax dollars leveraged private financing for Sea to Sky Whistler highway, the Canada Rail line connecting downtown Vancouver and the airport and Fraser River toll-bridge projects. More train traffic means rail overpasses to reduce congestion, air pollution, barriers to emergency services and annoying train horns.

By contrast the ports of Puget Sound are unaligned in purpose, due to partisan paralysis and a preference for going to court over commodities rather than building infrastructure for community access.

Our goal to double exports is undercut by Congress not investing in transportation. Our imports are hurt by a federal Harbor Maintenance Tax — despite the reform efforts of our U.S. senators.

State Highways 509 and 167 are unfinished and Interstate 5 is a nightmare.

Washington severely restricts private-sector partnerships for transportation. Sixteen projects of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Freight Action Strategy (FAST) for the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Corridor are on hold.

Americans do agree with Canadians on rail safety. Political leaders insist on safer rail cars for Bakken oil, advanced notification of communities and better emergency response. Regulators are expediting safety laws and the rail industry is making massive investments in safety and capacity.

Railroads are, however, safer than roads. Railroads move more freight with fewer diesel emissions than trucks and, by federal law, are safer for transporting hazardous materials. They support freight-intensive industries including manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forest products, wholesale and retail trade that employ 1.2 million people or 40 percent of Washington state’s jobs. Growth in these industries and international import and exports are expected to double rail volumes by 2034.

Congress should embrace the separation of highway and rail traffic, elimination of some crossings and metro area bypasses as the new Interstate system. Like the 1956 Interstate Highway initiative, these investments connect our local economy to international markets by de-coupling them from local traffic.

In 2015, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature should make a down payment on a billion-dollar highway-rail separation and port-access plan. Washington ports connect trade, local jobs and communities. Grant them funding flexibility to work with private-sector partners on access and mitigation projects. The bipartisan Rail Caucus formed by state Reps. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, and Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, should lead that effort.

Leaders should think vertically through public-private partnerships on BNSF, Union Pacific, short haul and Eastside rail corridors.

Buried utilities from broadband to energy can generate private-sector capital for highway overpasses, dedicated commuter and faster Amtrak Cascades passenger rail tracks and co-located recreational trails. Renewable energy from British Columbia could use buried high-voltage direct current lines to supplement our transmission grid and blend wind power from the Columbia River to access hungry California markets.

Cascadia leader Paul Schell believed Washington should compete with and learn from B.C.

He was right then and it is right now.

Bruce Agnew is director of the Cascadia Academy.