Shipping hub feels squeeze of regional growth

With the rapid growth of the Seattle region and increasing demand for residential space, industrial areas such as the intermodal facility in Tukwila are trying to claim space before being squeezed out. Photo: freepik.com

Santa’s workshop may be in the North Pole, but he has an outpost tucked away nearby in a place you might not expect: Tukwila, Washington.

Each Christmas season, Tukwila serves as a regional domestic hub for a flood of consumer products, while Seattle’s port in SODO handles the international flow of goods that will eventually wind up under Christmas trees. However, this intricate supply chain network is at work year-round, driving economic activity from Washington to Illinois.

At the South Seattle Intermodal Facility located in Tukwila, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BSNF) manages a crucial valve in the supply chain that serves most of the northern United States. Squeezed between I-5 and the Duwamish River, this strip of land serves as the center of activity as important to a grain farmer in North Dakota as it is to a family in Kirkland getting soccer cleats from Amazon.

With the rapid growth of the Seattle region and increasing demand for residential space, industrial areas such as the intermodal facility in Tukwila are trying to claim space before being squeezed out.

“Once you lose industrial lands, you don’t get them back,” said Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for BNSF. “The PNW’s transportation/logistics system is a regional, perhaps national, economic asset – a real jobs generator – and should be recognized, valued and protected as such.”

The most prominent example of the uncertainty about industrial lands that has supply chain businesses worried is the previously proposed stadium plan for SODO. The proposed stadium and the accompanying development had many port and shipping leaders fearing they would be pushed out of a globally competitive business.

“Freight has no conscience,” said Curtis Shuck, Executive Director of the Great Northern Corridor Coalition, an organization focused on protecting and growing the rail network and supporting logistics from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. “Like a leaky roof, it flows where there’s the least resistance.”

In the quickly growing neighborhoods of Tukwila, city leaders are working closely with BNSF and other supply chain leadership to build with this key industrial link in mind.

“The City recognizes the need to balance industrial uses with the adjacent residential areas, both of which have been living and operating next to each other for over 50 years,” said David Cline, Tukwila City Administrator. “This is one reason that the City of Tukwila and BNSF partnered together to evaluate alternative entry points to the Intermodal Facility that would help mitigate the residential impacts.”

BNSF employs approximately 170 workers at the Tukwila intermodal facility in addition to another 100 workers from vendors and service partners. They recently added another 100 workers to serve as switch crews.

BNSF alone provides more than 3,700 jobs in Washington, not including the extensive interlocking public and private partnerships that keep the entire network moving.

But it’s not just the local economy and families that rely on the presence of this link. One hold-up in Tukwila could impact businesses as far away as Chicago.

“One kink in the line has a ripple effect,” said Wallace.

“It’s important for people to understand that what’s good here in Washington is important to the fluidity of the whole network,” said Shuck. “Washington is the global gateway for access to markets outside the US.”

The Tukwila intermodal facility engaged in more than 216,000 container movements in 2018, an average of about 800 per day. The intermodal designation means that it serves as a translation point between freight trucks and rail lines, an intricate, around-the-clock process of loading and unloading products from across the world quickly and safely to keep them on schedule to customers’ doorsteps.

According to a study commissioned by the Washington Council on International Trade and BNSF, freight rail adds $28.5 billion to Washington’s economy each year. In total, BNSF moves more than 1.7 million carloads of freight into and out of Washington every year.

The oncoming advance of drone delivery technology only heightens the need for a reliable supply chain to feed the doorstep delivery process.

“While people increasingly think of drones when it comes to shipping, they don’t realize that we have a very sophisticated supply chain network behind the scenes, hidden away here in Tukwila,” said Wallace.

Growing communities require space. The operators of industrial facilities such as the Tukwila intermodal facility want to make sure they are at least a part of the discussion.

“We want to create that bridge between community and commerce,” said Shuck. “Part of what you lose sometimes when you’re in your community, is you don’t appreciate the reliance the rest of the country has on the state of Washington. This notion that it’s just about Washington State is misleading. It’s bigger than that.”

Each Christmas season is the busiest for the workers across the network of ports, rail, trucking and countless other supply chain businesses and public facilities that help put presents under the tree. These workers just hope the community remembers that the North Pole runs through Tukwila year-round.

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