Weekly B-MOW: Ride the Bus for the Good of International Trade

Last week’s Best Meeting of the Week was hard to pick. For a short, four-day week, there were a wealth of options. But, proximity is the mother of inspiration (or something like that), so I’m going to go with Friday’s meeting. On Friday, I was at the Sea-Tac Airport Conference Center for the “Pacific Northwest Supply Chain Summit: Identifying Key Infrastructure and Logistics Issues and their Potential Solutions.” Put on jointly by the Ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland*, this was a forum for folks in the logistics and international trade industry (ports, manufacturers, railroads, trucking companies, expeditors, etc.) to share with the federal government their highest priority policy initiatives around supply chain infrastructure. In particular, the feds were interested in hearing about changes that would facilitate increased exports, in line with the National Export Initiative.

Now, a half day session on export promotion and supply chain infrastructure doesn’t have as much intrigue as season two of The Wire (which took place at a port, for the non-initiated). But I learned, or at least reinforced, some interesting things. And my number one take-away about export promotion through supply chain infrastructure investments? Sometimes investments in commute-trip reduction are just as good as new multi-modal infrastructure. Or to say it a different way, investments that get people out of their cars help facilitate international trade!

Now, I’m not necessarily sharing some groundbreaking realization. Most transportation planners know this, and this region is full of amateur transportation planners who probably know it too. But the basic idea is this: freight is moved around the country in one of three ways – trucks, trains and airplanes. Air cargo is great, but there’s plenty of things that are too big or otherwise inappropriate for planes. The rest of the stuff is either on rail or roads.

The problem with roads – as we all know – is that they’re often congested with traffic. For the average person trying to get to work, that’s annoying, but you can leave earlier or just suck it up. For the supply chain, that delay is cost…more time on the road in traffic is more fuel expense and more labor expense, but most importantly it’s lack of reliability of delivery time. And that is a major issue for lots of businesses, whether it’s Boeing that needs to have a part in place on the assembly line as soon as it’s time (or else the entire production line is stopped) or a retailer that’s trying to manage inventory levels and needs to know how much of something it’ll have at a certain time. Or, imagine being an agricultural products exporter in eastern Washington and trying to get your goods to market in Asia before they go bad. The tension between commuters and freight is true for rail too, especially in a region like ours that uses BNSF lines for Sounder trips (limiting the effectiveness of commuter rail AND freight transportation) and is trying to figure out the best use for eastside rail.

If there were less cars on the road and if passenger rail increasingly had its own lines, it would not only benefit the commuters and the environment, but it would actually free up logistics and freight folks to have more reliability, more speed and better access to markets – both domestically and internationally. Which creates an interesting situation. Transit proponents and environmental folks are trying to increase federal spending on transportation investments that will decrease vehicle miles traveled. Federal folks are trying to maximize their supply chain infrastructure investments to maximize exports and international trade. Is there a world in which federal export promotion dollars are spent on increased public transportation?

Probably not. But it’s an interesting idea. The overarching point is that it’s important to think of the transportation system cohesively, not as a two separate systems (one for people, one for goods). The good news is that the Puget Sound Regional Council has already done a ton of work on this front through the Transportation 2040 Regional Freight Strategy, including the recommendation to “[p]rioritize investments that enhance freight and goods mobility based on a systems approach, and complete strategic projects that have already been recognized as having a substantial freight benefit.”

And that’s what I think about that.

*The Port of Portland makes me laugh, every time I say it. It’s even funnier than a chair store name Seat of Seattle or a Mexican restaurant named Taco of Tacoma.**

**Feel free to continue this wordplay in the comment section: Shore or Shoreline, Lake of Laklewood, Edge of Edgewood…

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