Share story

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood chose Seattle’s Harbor Island on Thursday morning to announce creation of a Freight Policy Council. His goal is to propose corridor improvements for U.S. ports and a strategy to better move freight.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell joined LaHood in the warehouse of PCC Logistics, where LaHood referred to her as “the freight senator.” She faces a re-election challenge from Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane, whose signature issue is bringing home troops from Afghanistan.

Shipping industry executives, including BNSF Railway CEO Matt Rose and Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani, groused about the U.S. government’s lack of a freight policy at a Seattle convention last fall, while Canada invests heavily in its British Columbia terminals and inland railways.

There’s no new money or freight project list, but Cantwell and LaHood mentioned this state’s $150 million Vancouver (WA) Rail Project — where state and federal higher-speed rail funds will separate freight trains from Amtrak passenger trains, to reduce delays for both — as the kind of work that needs to be done. In Seattle, a South Lander Street overpass in Sodo was proposed years ago but lacks adequate city and state money.

LaHood said his federal board will be modeled on the Washington State Freight Mobility Investment Board. He said Washington state performs better than most in coordinating trucks, trains, and ships.

Seattle port backers worry about the 2014 widening of the Panama Canal. About 70 percent of cargo entering Seattle winds up in markets beyond the region, therefore the biggest ships can deliver their goods by passing through the enlarged canal to Gulf of Mexico ports. Would a national freight strategy tilt the balance away from the Northwest?

“These ports are going to very well when the Panama Canal opens, becuase they’re ahead of the curve on this,” LaHood said. Rather than pit regions against each other, Cantwell predicts USDOT would endorse projects aiding West Coast ports to increase their Asian trade, while competing against Canada and Mexico.

Lacking specifics, Thursday’s visit seems mostly about relationship-building, or keeping Puget Sound on a cabinet member’s mind.

At the photo-op site, PCC Logistics, a cornucopia of products is being loaded rail-to-truck or truck-to-rail: solar panels from China, pomegranate juice from Azerbaijan, peas and hay from eastern Washington, pork from Kansas.

History buff LaHood could have mentioned how federal stimulus programs for trade date back to Henry Clay’s “American System,” in the 1820s. He stopped at the river port of Lewiston, Idaho before Seattle and at a north Spokane freeway project afterward.