Case Study 8: Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Corridor

In the 1990s, a freight quality partnership was formed to improve freight infrastructure in the region, both to accommodate local freight traffic and to expedite and mitigate the impact of increasing pass-through freight. During the past 15 years, most of the infrastructure improvements initially identified by the partnership have been completed. The partnership has grown into a seasoned Freight Advisory Council (FAC) for the region’s MPO.

Planning Guide Strategies Discussed:

Discretionary freight is not affected by local supply or demand triggers. Trade that comes to the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle destined for points eastward is not required to go through those ports. Shippers “choose” to have this freight come through the Seattle-Tacoma region. The decision to have freight come through the region largely depends on factors outside of the region’s control, such as global shipping patterns and trade growth. All the same, discretionary is expected to grow significantly. The Ports of Tacoma and Seattle expect their intermodal traffic to almost triple by 2030. Similarly, the region’s rail system is expected to see significant intermodal container growth of 65 million intermodal tons by 2040.


Unlike the other case studies detailed in this Guide, the Seattle region’s FAST Corridor Initiative was started by the private sector. In 1992, the Washington State DOT formed a FAC to provide input to their state transportation plan. One member of the FAC also was a board member on the PSRC’s Transportation Policy Board. This member began to champion freight concerns with the MPO board and throughout the overall agency process. Together with a PSRC staff member, this FAC member began to build in freight planning as part of the PSRC planning process. This included development of an initial freight plan and a freight quality partnership that ultimately led to the creation of the FAST Corridor Initiative.

Active members of the FAC who were involved in the PSRC began to urge the MPO to pursue a way to be more inclusive of freight concerns in their business. In 1994, the PSRC created one of the first MPO-based freight quality partnerships in the nation. With its partners in the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, they created the Regional Freight Mobility Roundtable. At its first meeting, the roundtable established the private sector’s three biggest transportation concerns in the Seattle-Tacoma region:

  • Problems posed by the public-sector DM process
  • Constraints in the physical networks of roads and other facilities
  • Operating difficulties stemming from traffic management strategies and service levels (Federal Highway Administration, Case Study, n.d. a)

Economic Impacts

While there has not been any analysis of the economic impact of the FAST Partnership, the Seattle-Tacoma region’s economy is clearly dependent on the freight industry. In 2011, freight-dependent industries like mining, construction, manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade were responsible for over 30 percent of the region’s GDP (approximately $73.9 billion)[3].  Similarly, PSRC estimates these dependent industries support about 700,000 jobs in the region, which is about 37% of regional employment. The region’s air and maritime ports are estimated to be responsible for over 200,000 direct/indirect jobs. Combined, the ports generate almost $1 billion in local and state tax revenue[4].

Although there has not been any analysis of the economic impact of the FAST partnership, the Seattle-Tacoma region’s economy is clearly dependent on the freight industry. In 2011, freight-dependent industries like mining, construction, manufacturing, retail, and wholesale trade were responsible for over 30% (approximately $73.9 billion) of the region’s GDP (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2013). PSRC estimates these dependent industries support about 700,000 jobs in the region, which is about 37% of regional employment. The region’s air and maritime ports are estimated to be responsible for over 200,000 direct and indirect jobs. Combined, the ports generate almost $1 billion in local and state tax revenue (Puget Sound Regional Council 2010).

The success of freight in the Seattle-Tacoma region has a much broader impact, however: combined, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma represent the third-largest container port in the nation. Although an important statistic in itself, this has a much more critical role in terms of regional resiliency. The busiest container port in the nation is the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, in California. The next busiest—the Ports of New York/New Jersey— is on the East Coast. If an event restricted traffic through the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, the Ports of Seattle/Tacoma would be the only major container port serving the western United States.

Regional Approach/Initiative

In 1994, during a local freight conference, the initial idea of the FAST Corridor was created, and a working group was established to formalize the concept. It is important to note that the FAST Corridor is not a traditional highway or rail corridor; instead it is an initiative for improving freight in the region. Over the next 2 years, the concept was formally adopted in the PSRC Regional Transportation Plan and the program was staffed by the PSRC and Washington State DOT. In 2006, PSRC took over formal program administration for the FAST Corridor Partnership (Transportation Research Board 2003, 95–96).

The partnership is not simply between PSRC and the Washington State DOT; it includes “26 local cities, counties, ports; federal, state, and regional transportation agencies; railroads, and trucking interests, intent on solving freight mobility problems with coordinated solutions” (Puget Sound Regional Council, n.d.). The FAST partnership has completed 20 out of the 25 projects on its initiative list in the past 15 years.

The overall FAST strategy is divided into four categories:

  • Railroad grade crossings
  • Port improvements
  • Highway construction/reconstruction
  • Improvements to rail that serve both passenger and freight trips

Initially the FAST partners focused on supply-side infrastructure management projects and traffic management strategies like truck routes. Many of the 20 projects completed were railroad grade separations along critical freight highway routes in the region, as well as clearing up of constraints along the major intermodal connectors linking the ports and major truck routes through the region. More recently, the group has focused on demand-side projects like the use of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to expedite freight movement. These strategies are often much more cost-effective than traditional highway projects, and they are becoming more common in programs with declining revenues like FAST. Some of the more recent FAST projects include:

  • The Duwamish ITS Project: The Duwamish area is home to the Port of Seattle. All three phases of this project focused on moving truck traffic through the area more effectively. The most recent/final phase focused on feeding real-time traffic data into the algorithms that control signal timing, and on providing truck drivers real-time traffic information. This information is particularly useful to truck drivers because of the extensive use of movable bridges in the area. This project was completed in 2010 (City of Seattle, n.d.).
  • ITS and Incident Response Expansion to Key Puget Sound Freight Corridors and Interchanges Project. This project has represented a more holistic approach to improving 200 centerline miles throughout the region using various technological improvements, including traditional loop/video detection, dynamic messaging signs, and various communications tools to communicate conditions to drivers. Smaller projects, like weather stations and ramp metering, also have been added to the network; these types of projects are currently under development (Puget Sound Regional Council 2013).

Stakeholder Engagement

What makes the FAST partnership different from other case studies is the fact that so many jurisdictions worked together for the better part of two decades to develop more than $560 million of supply-side and demand-side freight improvement strategies. The representatives of these local cities, counties, ports, federal, state, and regional transportation agencies, railroads, and trucking interests worked as a cohesive group to achieve overall freight performance improvements.

Jurisdictions whose projects were delayed commonly shifted their allocations to another jurisdiction’s project if it was ready to progress. Simply, the group thought as a region, and that focus helped sustain the partnership for more than 15 years. Additionally, from the beginning, representatives from the private sector have largely driven and focused the efforts to successfully overcome many transportation challenges.

The larger strategy is built around a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that details the specific projects in the strategy. The MOU itself does not include any legal duties or rights for the jurisdictions involved; rather, it serves as a framework for the group. Each implementing agency (Washington State DOT, city of Seattle, and so forth) is responsible for the overall design and construction of projects. Similarly, projects undertaken within the FAST strategy have funding allocated to them individually (Transportation Research Board 2003).

Emerging Issues

The Everett-Tacoma FAST Corridor was designated as a high priority corridor by ISTEA (P.L. 102-240 § 1105(c) as amended through P.L. 112-141). Subsequently, in 1998, the FAST Corridor was included in the National Corridor Planning and Development Coordinated Borders Infrastructure program in TEA-21. The TEA-21 designation came with funding to the Washington State DOT and PSRC for the “coordinated planning, design, and construction of corridors of national significance, economic growth, and international or interregional trade” (Federal Highway Administration, online reference, n.d.).

The next authorization bill, SAFETEA-LU, continued funding projects in designated corridors like this one (Federal Highway Administration, online reference, n.d.). Thus, SAFETEA-LU indirectly funded the FAST Corridor through its continuation of funding projects designated under ISTEA’s High Priority projects (see Figure 43). The main bill authorized funding as necessary to cover Congressional High Priority projects; however, no funding was ever appropriated for this.

Figure 36: High Priority Corridors

Figure 43: High priority corridors

The most recent authorization, MAP-21, took a very different approach. One of the major changes in MAP-21 was the significant consolidation of highway programs at U.S. DOT. In addition, several programs were repealed—including the High Priority Project program, which had been the main funding source for FAST. Although MAP-21 carries the same larger authorization to fund Congressional High Priority projects like SAFETEA-LU, no appropriations have been made, nor is there any indication that appropriations will be made in the future.

Where does that leave the remaining five FAST projects? Discretionary corridor-related money was just one part of a larger recipe for funding projects in the FAST strategy. Many projects in fact had six or more funding sources. Even so, the loss of the discretionary funding is a significant setback that has indefinitely delayed at least two of the five remaining projects.

Today, the FAST Corridor Partnership has begun to serve more as a FAC for the region. Utilizing members’ institutional knowledge about FAST Corridor development, this group has technical and policy-level experience that will be beneficial to future freight mobility efforts.

Concluding Observations

Researchers have compared the success of the freight quality partnerships in Los Angeles (mainly the work leading up the Alameda Corridor) and the FAST partnership. Although both groups worked to significantly enhance their metropolitan areas’ freight networks, they had significantly different approaches and purposes. In Los Angeles, the group responded to an immediate need, whereas the FAST partnership worked to enhance the network in anticipation of future growth. The FAST partners saw an opportunity to capitalize on potential business opportunities that might result from congestion or potential service interruptions at the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach. Essentially, their goal was to create opportunity for the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle through improving the region’s freight resiliency.

The multijurisdictional group worked together to proactively enhance the region’s freight network, instead of waiting to act when freight volumes increased. In addition, the group focused on projects that were too small for the Washington State DOT to focus on, but too large for municipalities to handle alone. As a group, they were able to handle problems that no single entity could resolve, which provided real results and increased buy-in from their private-sector partners.

The lessons learned from the FAST partnership apply directly to regions looking to improve the position of their community to capture future freight opportunities. Although the project’s initial “wins” came from being able to fund projects through the former Borders and Corridors program, the group was strategically positioned to also pursue non-traditional highway funding like that available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

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