The Port of Tacoma is used to providing big lifts with its massive cranes loading and unloading ships, but it’s now looking forward to receiving a big lift of its own: a 6-mile stretch of highway.

Construction officially began in October to complete a missing link of State Route 167 — the 6-mile segment connecting Puyallup to the port. While that work might not be as wow-inducing as, say, a giant crane hoisting massive containers, its lift is no less significant to the business of the port, a major artery in the regional, state, and national economies.

“There’s no doubt in my mind had we not got to the point we are right now — and been delayed even longer — there would have been a bottleneck where the Port of Tacoma could not grow any more,” said Port Commissioner Dick Marzano. “It’s that critical to not just our port, but to the Puget Sound region and the entire state.”

The work, targeted for completion in 2028, is seen as vital to the port’s competitiveness by providing a direct connection from the port’s marine terminals to Interstate 5 and the all-important Kent Valley, home to the second-largest distribution center complex on the West Coast and through which 40 percent of truck trips originating from or destined to the port come, according to the port. 

The ability to move cargo more efficiently outside the port is important as international trade increases and cargo vessels become larger, creating bigger pulses of cargo to efficiently distribute via truck and rail. The SR 167 project also will provide the final connector for products grown or manufactured in Central or Eastern Washington, including hay, apples, cherries, and other fruits and vegetables; help maintain and grow jobs in Pierce County; and reduce surface-street truck traffic in places like Fife. 

“As far as we know, on the West Coast, even including Canada, that is the only port that does not have some type of limited-access highway, expressway to it,” said Craig Stone, administrator of the Puget Sound Gateway Program for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

©2010 Port of Tacoma

The program is a package deal comprising SR 167 in Pierce County and completing State Route 509 in King County, critical to the Port of Seattle. The program is budgeted at almost $2 billion.

The SR 167 missing link includes a 4-mile segment to Interstate 5 and roughly 2-mile connection between I-5 and SR 509 near the port. The project also includes five interchanges: at SR 509, 54th Avenue, I-5, Valley Avenue, and State Route 161 (Meridian Avenue), according to WSDOT. 

The final link has been a long time coming, Stone said. The segment from Renton to Puyallup was finished about 30 years ago, followed by years of engineering, environmental analysis, and land-acquisition work, plus efforts to solidify funding. That took until 2015, when the Legislature approved “Connecting Washington” funds for construction, complemented by local funding.

The state has committed almost $1.6 billion in Connecting Washington money, which is primarily gas-tax-based. Other funding includes $180 million from tolls on the new highways; $130 million in local contributions from 18 jurisdictions, including from cities; and $30 million each from the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. The state also is seeking an $89 million federal grant to complete the last stage of work occurring in 2024–28.

Stone is optimistic federal money can be secured, as is Marzano.

“You would think we would be at the top of the list, especially for what we’ve done in our region as far as getting all the different parties together” to contribute to funding, Marzano said.

The City of Fife, which bears a big brunt of the current SR 167 gap, is among local contributors. Fife is responsible for more than $10 million in funding and has lined up more than $9 million in grants, and committed $1.6 million out of pocket, according to Russ Blount, Fife’s public works director. He called completing SR 167 “tremendously important” to the city.

“We’re just overwhelmed with trucks and regional traffic and 167 will get a significant amount of that traffic off our streets,” Blount said.

WSDOT’s Stone said all lanes will be tolled, with tolls varying by demand: higher during peak times, lower off-peak and weekends.

“A lot of people coming out of Pierce County would recognize the HOT lanes on 167, and these will not be HOT lanes, this is going to be the full roadway tolls, so think about it more like the (State Route) 520 floating bridge,” Stone said, noting tolls will generate $95 million for the project.

While tolling SR 167 won’t eliminate all surface-street traffic, the extension wouldn’t have gotten built without tolls, Blount said.

The SR 509 project more directly impacts the Port of Seattle, with benefits that include completing freight links between the port and key distribution, warehouse, and industrial centers in King County; reducing traffic on local roads and highways by completing connections between Seattle and the Kent Valley, providing an alternative to I-5 in South King County; and establishing a new connection between I-5 and Sea-Tac International Airport from the south for cargo and passengers, according to a WSDOT document.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma comprise The Northwest Seaport Alliance, a marine cargo operating partnership that is the fourth-largest container gateway in North America and leading export gateway for refrigerated commodities, according to the alliance.

“We’re excited about being able to complete these missing links,” WSDOT’s Stone said of highways 167 and 509. “They’re really two of the major gaps that we have in our transportation system here in the region.”

While SR 167 remains years from completion, the Port of Tacoma in October was reviewing final punch-list items on its $35 million Taylor Way Auto Facility, which includes 81,000 square feet of buildings on a 90-acre site the port leases to Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. The facility processes new vehicles as they come off ships and before the vehicles move by truck or rail to auto dealers nationally.

“Having processing centers at ports allows dealerships the ability to fine-tune the cars to their specifications,” said Andre Elmaleh, senior manager, business development for The Northwest Seaport Alliance.

The processors inspect the vehicles and their work runs the gamut from minor to “pretty intensive,” if necessary, he said. Work can include adding floor mats, glove box items, window labels, door-edge guards, tow hooks, spoilers, and mud guards to reprogramming computers and more.

The facility complements the port’s larger Marshall Avenue Auto Facility, which opened in the 1970s and occupies a 165-acre site, where the main processor is Auto Warehousing Co. That site has handled more than 180,000 vehicles in a year.

The new Taylor Way facility, which still is ramping up after taking its first vessel in December 2018, will probably process about 40,000 vehicles this year, but the site, without expansion, eventually could handle as many as 145,000 annually, Elmaleh said.

The Taylor Way site demonstrates the port’s commitment to diversity of business, he said.

“Everybody thinks of the Port of Tacoma or Seaport Alliance as a container gateway,” Elmaleh said. “That is obviously a significant amount of what we do; however, the port and our leadership is committed to a diversified business portfolio,” which includes non-container business, like autos.

The facility was expected to add 100 new jobs, according to a port news release when the project was announced.

The facility also cleaned up a formerly contaminated aluminum smelter site and created a much more environmentally friendly use, Elmaleh said.

“We’ve got a cleaner use on the property … great jobs, and it’s going to add to the bottom line of the port, so it’s a win-win all the way around,” he said.

Taylor Way Auto Facility at the Port of Tacoma; Photo courtesy NW Seaport Alliance