In Our View: Be Prepared

Port of Vancouver’s rail-improvement project good example of readying for better times

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One of these days, we’re reasonably certain, the economy will pick up. Businesses will resume hiring, widgets will be produced, goods and services will be exchanged for money.

And when that day arrives, the important thing will not be how much a business suffered during The Great Recession, but how prepared it is for the recovery. With that in mind, it is worth noting the news that the Port of Vancouver has secured $15 million in federal funds as part of a larger grant for Washington railway improvements.

According to a story by reporter Eric Florip of The Columbian, the money will help the port construct a new rail access route and revamp an existing crossing to reduce rail congestion. It is a small part of a grand 21-phase, 10-year, $150 million plan to improve freight access near the port.

Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager, said the overall effort is designed to reduce rail congestion by 40 percent. She added that already-completed portions of the plan have reduced congestion by 25 percent.

The latest funds were announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and they also included a $16.1 million chunk that will pay for track improvements on the rail line between Vancouver and Blaine, near the Canadian border. That will benefit Amtrak’s Cascades service, which this year is on track to surpass its 2010 total of 838,251 passengers.

The natural reaction to all of this might be to lament federal spending at a time when the nation’s debt is at an all-time high. Yet, this is exactly the kind of project that will be crucial to the United States’ future.

As Bill Straub of Scripps Howard News Service wrote this week: “The World Economic Forum, which as recently as 1995 listed U.S. infrastructure as tops in the world, now maintains the country has slipped to 23rd place behind, among others, Barbados. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its most recent infrastructure report card, gave the country a ‘D’ and asserted it would require an investment of $2.2 trillion over five years to get it in shape.

“Meanwhile, a report prepared by a panel of 80 experts for the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia — chaired by Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner, two former secretaries of the U.S. Department of Transportation — estimated that an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve the nation’s road, rail and air transportation systems.”

For too long, the United States has ignored the needs of its infrastructure, and that is one reason the economic recovery has been slow. (Technically, we’re no longer in a recession, but that doesn’t mean we’re in a recovery.) A faltering infrastructure can hamper trade, exporting, resource development, tourism … every facet of the economy. Consider this: If congested roads and rail lines slow the transport of items from producers to grocery stores, those increased costs might be passed along to consumers.

“If we are going to maintain our economic dominance, we have to get on the stick and get on it fast,” Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, said last month.

From a national perspective, $15 million going to the Port of Vancouver is a drop in the bucket. From a local perspective, it can pay big dividends. If Vancouver is accessible and accommodating for companies looking to transport their products, the upgrades at the port won’t be expenditures, they’ll be investments.

When the economy does recover and begins growing at a robust rate, the port — and all of Southwest Washington — will be ready to take advantage.