PASCO — Washington has the potential to be the doorway to the Asian markets.
But Sen. Maria Cantwell said the state could miss out if investment isn't made in infrastructure projects to move freight more efficiently.
Cantwell, D-Wash., toured Lampson International and Big Pasco Industrial Center on Monday as part of a statewide tour to drum up support for modernizing the nation's freight transportation system.
"Freight means jobs," Cantwell said.
About 44 percent of the state's jobs are tied to freight-dependent industries like agriculture and manufacturing, she said.
Freight-dependent industries employed nearly 60,000 people in Benton and Franklin counties in 2009.
Cantwell is urging Congress to pass the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Enhancement Act, which includes provisions from the Focusing Resources, Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation Act, or FREIGHT Act.
She introduced the bill last year with Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Frank Lautenbery, D-N.J.
The provisions in the bill would create the first nationwide freight transportation policy and prioritize existing transportation funding for projects that would improve speed and efficiency and create jobs, Cantwell said.
She also said it would help the nation meet President Obama's goal of doubling U.S. exports by the end of 2014.
The federal government needs to follow Washington state's example in prioritizing funding for freight-related projects, Cantwell said. So few dollars are available, they must be used effectively.
If truck congestion increases by 20 percent, the state stands to lose 27,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in economic output, Cantwell contended, citing a pending study by the state Department of Transportation.
Attracting and keeping businesses and creating jobs can't happen without the infrastructure to move products like Lampson International's cranes, Cantwell said.
"You've got to get products to market," Cantwell said.
Lampson International uses rail, barge, truck and sometimes air to transport parts it manufactures, said company president Bill Lampson. Having cost efficient and the best modes of transportation available are important to his business.
Cantwell pointed to the Port of Pasco's efforts to develop into a rail hub as a good example of modernizing freight transportation infrastructure.
When the port bought property in Pasco in the '60s, there were already 17 miles of rail, but lightweight rail had been installed, some of which was surplus from the 1800s, said Jim Toomey, Port of Pasco executive director. It wasn't up to the current needs.
Now, the port is one phase away from completing a project to modernize rail lines on port property. What remains is a mile of track to create a second east to west rail line that Toomey said would improve moving freight. The port needs to find about $1.4 million for the final piece of the project that started in 2005.
Existing transportation infrastructure dollars should be prioritized for freight projects that would result in greater ease of moving products and more jobs, Cantwell said.
Other countries are investing in infrastructure, like Canada, which has spent $1 billion for transportation infrastructure, Cantwell said.
"We need to make sure that we are staying competitive," she said.
Otherwise, Vancouver, British Columbia, could become where Asian exports and imports go instead of Washington state, she said.
The state's exports to the Asia-Pacific region in 2010 were valued at $37 billion -- about 69 percent of the total value of all of the state's exported products, according to the United States Trade Representative.
About 533 million tons of freight was moved in Washington in 2010. That is expected to grow by about 86 percent by 2040, Cantwell said.
But the growth to the state's economy and the increase in jobs will only happen if infrastructure improvements are made today, she said.
Cantwell said she is hopeful the bill will pass by March 31, which is when the current surface transportation reauthorization expires.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com