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Freight Mobility Essential for Portland’s Future

by Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Capital Press, August 15, 2003

Inspired by high unemployment and the Port of Portland’s prediction that truck and rail traffic may double in the next decade, the City of Portland is taking a renewed interest in freight mobility, especially between the port and the rest of the state.

To highlight its importance to the city council, Commissioner of Public Utilities Jim Francesconi and members of the Portland Development Commission and Freight Committee sponsored a workshop, July 29.

Francesconi established the Portland Freight Committee several months ago, in response to the port’s growth forecast. In the workshop, the committee’s members offered the council and about two dozen business and political leaders a view of the “challenges and opportunities” facing rail, marine and truck transportation companies.

Their presentation, which included a tour of Northwest Container Services and Port of Portland’s Terminal 6, emphasized the crucial link between the city’s growth and its history as a freight distribution center.

“The council is committed to providing employment for all our citizens,” Francesconi said to an audience that included Mayor Vera Katz and key business and civic leaders. While pursuing mass transit, walking trails and bicycle paths, “I sense that we haven’t put enough emphasis on the transportation of freight.”

Noting that Portland’s economy is more dependent on trade than any other U.S. city, he said, “Our future depends on providing transportation options for the movement of freight.”

In her comments to the group, Katz talked about the year-long discussion with the Washington Department of Transportation. “It helped me appreciate that the importance of the I-5 corridor is huge,” she said. “As a result, as a city, we need to concentrate on all our transportation needs.”

In his presentation at the workshop, Bob Alexander, senior economic development manager for the Portland Development Commission,said that 11 percent of Portland jobs are directly involved in freight transportation, which emphasizes the “strong connection” between the economic health of the city and industrial development and transportation.

However, freight access has been declining for years, said Susie Lahsene, Port of Portland’s manager for planning. This isn’t just hurting the city, it’s a hardship for the region.

“Investment in the transportation system has become fundamental to the economic success of the region. Those industries involved in global trade drive the region’s economic growth,” Lahsene said.

Today’s Pacific Northwest, “is the result of past wise transportation investment,” she said. “We’re playing catch-up now. So, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing trends on how that will impact how well freight moves.”

Especially in regard to the road system, which ties the Willamette Valley’s farms, food processors and forest product manufacturers to the Port of Portland, former Oregon Trucking Association chairman Dick Sovennes said the decline has been due to a lack of interest. “I don’t believe the city has an anti-truck bias. They just haven’t thought about freight access because nobody was placing the issues before them to consider.”

The City Hall’s freight committee is changing that, he said. “Until recently, there have been advocates for bicycles, mass transit and pedestrians, but there haven’t been advocates for freight. Now there is.”

When it comes to the tension between the export-dependent growers and processors around the state and the city, “I don’t think it’s a matter of the city and the rest of the state going in opposite directions,” said Steve Gerber, freight coordinator for the city’s Office of Transportation. “We will never be entirely on the same page, but there’s a balance we need to achieve.”

Because of problems with traffic congestion and the decline in the number of roads with enough clearance to be considered freight corridors, some companies are responding by find ways to avoid Portland, said Gary Caldwell, chief executive officer of Northwest Container Services, which handles 250 containers a day, in and out of Oregon.

Hay, straw, potatoes, onions and other vegetables account for nearly all of the export cargo loaded at the Port of Portland. However, Caldwell’s company has purchased 30 sets of five-car double-stack railcar units and is investing $45 million in freight transfer facilities in Eastern Oregon and the mid-Willamette Valley.

Problems moving trucks through metropolitan Portland are making it more efficient to move export facilities inland, “to where the exports are,” Caldwell said. “The higher the costs for moving the exports to the dock, the less the growers make, so they have concerns about highway congestion.”

“With the port predicting a 100 percent increase in freight traffic, I think freight mobility is going to be on everyone’s agenda. For now, we can be proactive rather than reactive, but we have to do something or else we’ll end up like Seattle,” he said.

Traffic congestion in Seattle and its impact on the Port of Seattle is a major concern for Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland. Speaking at Terminal 6, he said, “All of this would mean nothing without landside connections. Access to the facility is as important as the facility itself.”

Wyatt said the port represents $500 million in infrastructure, built over the last century. “It can’t be replicated. So, it makes it important to maintain access.”

Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Freight Mobility Essential for Portland’s Future
Capital Press, August 15, 2003

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