The Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board (FMSIB) is a state agency that works to ease the flow of goods in Washington. It was created by the state legislature in 1998 as part of the first program in the country to tackle freight-mobility issues. The board identifies and ranks construction projects designed to improve freight movement by reducing traffic conflicts. It then uses money provided by the legislature to attract funding partners and bring those projects to fruition. The board has faced several challenges, notably the passage in 1999 of Initiative 695, which eliminated project funding, and the global economic downturn starting in 2007 that affected trade and construction for several years. The board’s greatest and ongoing challenge has been population growth in the Puget Sound area, home of the state's two biggest ports, biggest airport, and biggest concentration of warehouses and manufacturing. While addressing ever-increasing traffic, the board in its first 20 years contributed $294 million to 82 projects and emerged as a national model for improving freight movement.
Population Growth Spurs Action
Washington is often described as the nation's most trade-dependent state. Goods and crops flow in and out of its ports and warehouses, serving the national import-export economy and community needs while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs. But as the population grew, especially in the central Puget Sound area, trucks and trains transporting products increasingly came in conflict with each other and local traffic, and the issue of freight mobility became a hot topic. Tacoma’s News Tribune outlined the problem in a March 1997 editorial:
"The future of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle is on a collision course with the booming populations of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. At railroad crossings from Tacoma to Everett, increasingly long lines of automobiles are waiting for increasing lengths of time as growing numbers of cargo trains move to or from the two Puget Sound ports. The conflict between freight and drivers has reached a crisis in Auburn and Puyallup" ("Agenda 1997").
This situation would only get worse. A 2005 article in the magazine Traffic World said, "Road congestion, inadequate rail infrastructure and the natural limitations of Seattle's water-bound geography have contributed to gridlock in parts of Seattle that rivals any in the country." The article said that the ports were driving congestion through "explosive growth of inbound container traffic," adding to traffic in the Green River Valley, which it described as the "second-largest distribution hub on the West Coast and the fourth largest in the nation," with at least 22,000 trucks and 18 freight trains passing through the area each day ("Polishing Emerald City").
The Washington Public Ports Association sounded an early alarm, voicing concerns that trains carrying freight were being slowed so much by road traffic that ports were at a competitive disadvantage. In 1996, a group of 20 partners formed the Freight Action Strategy for the Seattle-to-Tacoma (FAST) Corridor, referring to roads and railroads going through the Green River Valley and connecting with the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. The group identified 15 projects to improve freight movement.
In 1997, urged by the ports to tackle the issue in a comprehensive way, the state legislature's Transportation Committee appointed a Freight Mobility Advisory Committee that included freight movers to study the issue. It suggested remedies, many of them so-called grade separations -- tunnels or overpasses that would put intersecting train tracks and roadways on different levels. The committee recommended the establishment of an independent freight mobility transportation program that would bring interested parties together to address traffic conflicts in strategic freight corridors throughout the state. Transportation Committee co-chair Karen Schmidt (R-Bainbridge Island) introduced a House bill to create a board that would serve that purpose by encouraging and partially funding construction projects aimed at eliminating freight-traffic bottlenecks.
Schmidt's bill led to passage of a bill codified as Chapter 47.06A RCW, the law establishing the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board with a dedicated funding source for projects to improve the flow of freight.
The board was defined as having two fulltime positions -- an executive director and executive assistant -- and 12 unpaid members representing cities, counties, ports, railroads, the shipping and trucking industries, the Office of Financial Management, and the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Board members would be appointed by the governor and generally serve four-year terms.
Getting to Work
The Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board convened for the first time in July 1998 with Dennis Ingham (1946-2012), a state highway official, as acting executive director, and Daniel O'Neal (1936-2017), a former head of the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, as chair.
The board's mission was to optimize freight mobility on the state's strategic freight corridors, and to lessen the negative impacts of freight on communities. It would meet about five times a year at various sites around the state, forging partnerships, and evaluating and ranking proposed construction projects. It would provide between 10 and 65 percent of the money needed for chosen projects, the idea being to attract the remaining funding needed to start and complete those projects.
Road-rail conflicts were a common target. A study by the board determined that Washington had more than 2,000 potentially problematic intersections of roads and railways. Such crossings were manageable when traffic levels were low, the study reported, but delays and the potential for collisions increased as traffic got thicker and trains got longer.
A two-year state transportation plan proposed in December 1998 by Gov. Gary Locke (b. 1950) listed 48 possible projects to improve such conflicts, including proposed FAST projects. The freight mobility board studied and ultimately recommended 33 for funding. Topping the list were plans to build elevated roads over railroad tracks near the football and baseball stadiums in Seattle.
The 1999 Legislature allocated $120 million for the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board's preferred projects. Those funds never materialized. They were lost that November when voters approved Initiative 695, which repealed the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and replaced it with a flat $30 annual fee on private cars and trucks. That eliminated the source of FMSIB's anticipated funding, as well as partnership match funding for its previously approved projects.
The board was sent scrambling for ways to carry out its plans. It checked with partnering agencies to see which projects were ready to start construction by June 30, 2001, and whether those partners still could contribute funds. Some increased their matched share to help offset the lost revenue. The board resolved to maintain its original priority list as much as possible and to break large projects into more easily-funded phases so they could at least get started. But it also told partners they would bear all financial risk if they chose to go ahead.
One project that proceeded was the city of Kelso's plan to replace its old Allen Street Bridge with a four-lane span over the Cowlitz River. That $14.3 million project was underway before I-695 was filed. The board had promised to contribute $3.1 million, money it no longer had. The state Department of Transportation said it would honor the board's commitment and pay the promised amount.
Hiring a Director
In October 1999, with acting director Ingham having announced his retirement, FMSIB members picked an executive director -- Karen Schmidt, the House Transportation Committee co-chair, whose legislation effectively created the board. She had represented the 23rd legislative district in the state House since 1981. The Bainbridge Island Review called her "one of the most powerful women in Washington" and noted that in her nine re-election bids, "her survival was almost as sure a thing as has ever been seen in state politics." The paper added: "It's been quite a rise through the ranks for Schmidt since the fall of 1980, when she was a 34-year-old mother of two young sons whose resume highlights included the vice presidency of the island's Welcome Wagon organization and the co-chairmanship of the Grand Old Fourth Committee" ("Ferry Godmother ...").
Schmidt, who owned a travel agency in Winslow, earned the nickname Ferry Godmother as an advocate for the state ferry system, upon which many Bainbridge Islanders depended. But she also had a strong grasp of statewide transportation issues, including challenges to freight mobility. Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison (b. 1933) said his fellow board members "bent over backwards to search nationwide ... and Karen kept coming to the top of the list." With the board's funding wiped out by Initiative 695 and future funding uncertain, Morrison said its leader needed to be primarily an advocate, "someone who is outspoken and who could go out to the Rotary clubs and Chambers of Commerce and attract some attention" ("Rep. Schmidt Hired ...").
As executive director, Schmidt would have an annual salary of $84,000, nearly triple what she was making as a part-time legislator. She held that role for 13-1/2 years and also served on the National Freight Advisory Committee. FMSIB's next executive director was Ashley Probart, former government-relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities. He took the post in August 2014. Succeeding him was Brian Ziegler, former Pierce County Public Works director, who had been on the board representing counties since 2006. He became the freight board's director in 2017.
Original FMSIB chair O'Neal was succeeded in 2005 by Patricia Otley, who had joined the board in 1998 representing railroads. Following her as chair in 2012 was Dan Gatchet, a retired trucking-industry executive.
Regaining its footing after the passage of I-695, the board in 2000 developed a revised operating and capital needs budget. It met in seven different cities with local governments, businesses and agencies, and sent out its first call for projects. Meanwhile, the state legislature restored funding for 13 previously approved projects. The biggest was in Seattle's SoDo district, extending Atlantic Street as the first phase of WSDOT's "SR 519 Intermodal Access Project" to connect Port of Seattle facilities with Interstates 5 and 90. Of the nearly $147 million total cost, the board would contribute $38.6 million, by far the most for any of its planned projects. "In this one location," FMSIB’s 2000 annual report said, "more cars, trucks and trains physically cross each other than anywhere else in the state." The report noted that the state's greatest chokepoints slowing freight were in the Puget Sound region "where congestion is impacting everyone."
The first three board-backed projects were completed in 2001. They were the Allen Street Bridge replacement in Kelso, a bridge at the Port of Kalama's industrial park, and the Port of Tacoma Road, a $33 million overpass that was the first of 15 FAST corridor projects aimed at improving freight movement on Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Everett. The Port of Tacoma Road carried about 800 trucks a day. As described by The News Tribune, the overpass "effectively eliminates a bottleneck by separating the port's primary entrance from crossing Highway 509 or the tracks for trains that carry containers away from three of the port's four major terminals" ("A New Portal ...").
A similar $31 million overpass, also a FAST Corridor project, opened in August 2001 over 3rd Street SW in Auburn, where railroad tracks previously split the town and each day 44 slow-moving freight trains, some more than a mile long, had stopped traffic for up to half an hour each.
Five more projects were completed in 2003, with some big ones in the works, notably a pair of I-90 projects near Snoqualmie Pass with a combined FMSIB funding share of more than $85 million. But congestion was getting worse in the Puget Sound area with trucking, shipping, ports, and railroads all reporting double-digit growth in freight volumes.
A project recommended as a high priority by the freight board involved grade separations along S 228th Street in Kent that would eliminate rail crossings and speed the flow of trains. The project also would extend the street to create a new corridor between North Kent and Interstate 5, easing truck and commuter traffic around an industrial and warehouse area with an estimated 1,800 businesses and 50,000 jobs.
By the end of 2008, the 10-year-old board had helped pay for 35 completed projects valued at more than $280 million and another 42 that were under construction. Its progress was slowed, however, by widespread recession. "It is hard to imagine a more difficult economic year," FMSIB's 2009 annual report said. "Trade has shrunk at a rate that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Railroads, container lines, trucking, and ports have all been struck by the global economic crisis."
Some projects were slowed by other factors. One example was WSDOT's plan to connect the Port of Seattle with I-5 and I-90, which had had been the state's highest priority traffic project since at least 1998. Phase 2 would go through SoDo's stadium district, and that's where competing interests collided. The port, which had seen a surge in container volume, was eager for a connecting road to be built, while the city under Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) was pushing for pedestrian-friendly areas around the stadiums and the events center between them. The project remained stalled in 2006, and six years later the conflict between freight movers, sports, and the city flared again with talk of building a nearby basketball arena.
The freight board weighed in on the topic in its 2012 annual report, saying that among the challenges to freight mobility was "the continuing gentrification of neighborhoods near inter-modal facilities." The report continued:
"It is a paradox that with economic prosperity the population grows and there is more pressure on land for non-industrial uses and (there is) more traffic congestion ... Gentrification is on the rise, putting pressure on port facilities, multi-modal yards, warehousing operations, truck terminals and ports in many of the state's most vibrant freight activity centers."
Elsewhere in the state, traffic-easing projects were getting done and earning praise and gratitude. In Granite Falls, for example, a road completed in November 2012 diverted heavy truck traffic away from the middle of the town. The $28.8 million project, which was helped by a $5 million contribution from the freight board, rerouted an estimated 2,000 gravel-bearing truck trips per day. "It means a lot for Granite Falls," Mayor Haroon Saleem said. "Finally the citizens can breathe easy knowing that we will have a route that will take the trucks off of our streets" ("Truck Bypass Opens ..."). That echoed sentiments expressed earlier in Kelso where the new Allen Street Bridge was built with freight-board help. A sign outside the local hardware store said, "1ST TIME SINCE 1923 NO TRAIN DELAYS" (FMSIB 2001 Annual Report).
Work to build overpasses on Kent’s S 228th Street -- a multi-phase project supported by the freight board since 2000 and still in progress in 2019 -- eased traffic problems along the region's busiest freight corridors. The first phase, completed in 2005, realigned S 228th Street from downtown Kent to Interstate 5. The second phase, completed in December 2009, elevated the roadway over busy BNSF tracks. That eliminated a major bottleneck each day involving as many as 15,000 cars and trucks, and nearly 50 freight, Amtrak, and Sounder commuter trains. Another grade separation, over Union Pacific tracks on the west side of town, was under construction.
A project completed in July 2013 brought similar relief to Auburn. The M Street SE underpass, conceived as a FAST Corridor project and backed by the freight board, redirected road and pedestrian traffic below the railroad tracks. That meant street traffic, including about 600 trucks each day, no longer had to wait for the passage of trains up to a mile long.
The Auburn underpass was among 20-year highlights listed in the FMSIB 2017 annual report. Other Puget Sound area projects that made the list were construction of a truck-only gateway from Port of Seattle terminals to Union Pacific's Argo yard that was expected to carry 45 percent of the port's regional truck traffic; an East Marginal Way overpass, improving access to Port of Seattle terminals and regional warehouses; and a project raising Lincoln Avenue over railroad tracks in the Port of Tacoma area, where trains going into and out of the port average 1.5 miles long. Lincoln Road is the main truck route between the port and Interstate 5, and trains crossing the road were delaying traffic up to 30 minutes every two hours.
Other highlights listed in the board's report were a renovation of the Port of Kalama's grain terminal; construction of a new Freya Street Bridge in Spokane that replaced two old bridges over train tracks in the city's only north-south heavy freight corridor; extension of Piert Road in Benton County to provide a direct route between the Port of Kennewick and Finley's industrial area, thus reducing truck traffic on residential streets; and construction of underpasses on Yakima's two main arterials, where train tracks ran through the central business district. Those grade separations were hailed as a 2016 national project of the year by the American Public Works Association.
State freight projects got a boost from the federal government when Congress for the first time dedicated funds to improve freight mobility through a 2016-2020 program called FASTLANE. Two FMSIB projects were among those benefitting. One, getting a grant of $45 million, would ease conflict between rail and roadway traffic by elevating South Lander Street over tracks carrying more than 120 trains a day through an area that includes Port of Seattle facilities and BNSF and Union Pacific railroad yards. The other project, getting a $5 million grant, would create a tunnel to take Strander Boulevard beneath tracks in Tukwila's busy Southcenter shopping, business park and industrial area.
FMSIB had been on the federal government's radar for several years. Senators Maria Cantwell (b. 1958) and Patty Murray (b. 1950) were lead sponsors of the FREIGHT (Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation) Act, which was introduced in February 2011. Cantwell cited FMSIB as an example of successful freight coordination, pointing to its work in identifying key highway, rail, and maritime freight corridors, and improving those corridors through collaboration with affected parties. In 2012, when Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (b. 1945) announced the creation of a federal Freight Policy Council, he said it was modeled on the state of Washington's freight board. The federal council produced the first national freight strategy plan, which was announced in 2015.
By then, the state's Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board had a proven record of identifying problems and getting projects built. The keys to its success, as Chair Otley wrote in the 2007 annual report: "We leverage funds, and we forge partnerships." The board's achievements continued to grow in succeeding years.
In 2016, FMSIB reached a milestone. Its contributions -- $201 million since it was created -- had leveraged more than $1 billion in project funding. By the end of 2017, 82 of the board's designated projects either were completed or underway. In 2018, six more were completed, another six were under construction, and eight more were scheduled. The board's total contributions since being formed had reached $318 million. That money combined with partnership spending had netted $2.1 billion in freight transportation investments.