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Originally published June 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 18, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Northwest, like the nation, at an infrastructure crossroads

Over the past 25 years, the United States' population has grown by a third, rising from 226 million to 300 million. The U.S. Census...

Special to The Times

Over the past 25 years, the United States' population has grown by a third, rising from 226 million to 300 million. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that it will increase by another 60 million over the next 25 years. Our economy, measured by gross domestic product (GDP), has quadrupled since 1980, going from approximately $3 trillion to $13 trillion.

However, our investments in airports, highways, ports and rail networks have not kept pace with this growth. According to a recent Urban Land Institute report on infrastructure, our nation spends less than 1 percent of our GDP on our infrastructure, compared with China, which invests about 9 percent of its GDP. Without adequate investment in infrastructure, our economic growth cannot be sustained.

Not surprisingly, our infrastructure is decaying. In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our nation's infrastructure an overall grade of D, citing problems with airports, bridges, dams, drinking water, transit, handling of waste, navigable waterways and schools. ASCE estimated that we must spend $1.6 trillion over the next five years to alleviate these problems.

Rapid growth and underfunding for infrastructure also pose challenges for Puget Sound communities. According to a 2005 Texas Transportation Institute study, the number of hours area drivers spent stuck in traffic quadrupled since the 1980s; congestion costs to the region are approximately $1 billion a year.

With a booming economy, a busy and critical airport and seaports — one in six jobs in the region depends of international trade — and a population that will expand by 2 million people by 2025, Seattle-area communities must decide how to fund the transportation projects that are essential to continued growth and congestion relief. These projects include replacement of the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 floating bridge, and expansion of the Sound Transit light-rail system. Collectively, their cost is approximately $20 billion.

Similar challenges elsewhere have resulted in new thinking across the country. State and local governments are passing legislation that allows marketplace forces of supply and demand to create new funding streams such as public-private partnerships, variable tolls and congestion pricing.

Sound cost-benefit analyses, such as those conducted by the Washington Department of Transportation, are yielding higher returns on investments. Metropolitan and regional planning organizations, such as Sound Transit and the Regional Transportation Investment District, are developing holistic strategies to optimize use of all transportation modes (e.g., ferries, transit, rail, roads).

There is consensus among the region's residents and political leaders that urgent transportation improvements are required. However, agreements need to be finalized about the form of projects or how to fund them. Should the viaduct be replaced by a surface option? Do public-private partnerships constitute "selling public assets?" Are more tolls required? Should voters approve the "roads and transit" package this November?

Elected officials including Gov. Christine Gregoire, county executives Ron Sims (King), John Ladenburg (Pierce) and Aaron Reardon (Snohomish), and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, as well as the senior leaders of WSDOT, Sound Transit and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, have been instrumental in framing the transportation challenges that must be overcome for the collective benefit of all area residents.

Now is the time to agree on a plan, priorities and a funding scheme to reduce congestion, improve safety and keep international trade moving through our area ports.

Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who maintains a residence in Seattle, commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He is an adjunct professor at West Point, serves as a military analyst for NBC News and is the chairman of HNTB Federal Services and an advisory member of the HNTB Companies board of directors.

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