Investment in Washington's transportation infrastructure is critical to keeping the Tri-Cities and the rest of the state competitive, officials said.
"We are losing market share," Port of Seattle Commission President Tom Albro told more than 30 business and government leaders who gathered at a Friday meeting held by the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.
He and other Port of Seattle officials urged Tri-City leaders to ask their representatives to pass the transportation package currently under consideration by the state Legislature.
Both the House and the Senate are expected to vote on it this weekend before the end of the regular session. The exact details of a compromise worked out Friday were not available.
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Among the projects proposed for funding include connecting highways 167 and 509 to Interstate 5, projects needed by the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma to keep the ports internationally competitive, Albro said.
The package may also include money for Highway 395 near Spokane, the Columbia River crossing project and Interstate 90 improvements.
But the proposal depends on the Legislature passing a 10-cent gas tax hike.
Not investing in infrastructure now will put Washington at a disadvantage when competing with other ports, including the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant.
"We have to look at the whole system," he said.
Produce grown around the Tri-Cities is currently shipped through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma to the rest of the nation, as well as internationally. For example, much of the alfalfa hay grown in the area is shipped to Japan.
The transportation package may include money for projects Tri-City officials have said will help boost the regional economy and improve safety.
About $27.5 million for a new Interstate 82 interchange at Red Mountain and a roundabout at highways 224 and 225 in Benton City and $126 million for Highway 12 improvements between the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla were among the projects that legislators were suggesting for funding, according to state documents.
Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, told the Herald on Friday that he was not sure if those projects made it into the compromise, as he had not yet seen it.
Transportation is one of the top criteria companies consider when deciding where to locate a new site, said Carl Adrian, TRIDEC president and CEO. The Tri-Cities tends to rate well because of its proximity to Boise, Portland and Seattle.
Diahann Howard, Port of Benton director of economic development and governmental affairs, said the Tri-Cities is seeing tremendous interest in foreign investment. She mentioned the $110 million in hotels, apartments and villas that will be built this year near Richland's Horn Rapids Golf Course, thanks to foreign investment.
"We understand that we are completing globally," she said. "We are competing nationally."
Along with exports, tourism also is part of what it will take to help Washington's jobs continue to grow, said John Creighton, Port of Seattle commissioner.
International traffic in and out of Sea-Tac Airport is what has been growing fastest, said Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani.
Attracting international tourists to Eastern Washington has become a challenge after the state stepped out of tourism promotion, said Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president and CEO. She said the Port of Seattle has been good to partner with.
International visitors make up about 20 percent of those who travel into the Seattle region, according to Visit Seattle, Watkins said. International visitors tend to spend more money and stay longer when they come.
When the state did invest in tourism, Watkins said typically about 25 to 40 travel writers would visit, helping to promote Eastern Washington and the Tri-Cities in international media outlets. Now, that has dropped significantly, she said.