The call of NAFTA isn’t the “giant sucking sound” of jobs flying south, as Ross Perot predicted.
Rather, contends Washington State University researcher Ken Casavant, it’s the crash of a car dropping into a pothole.
Casavant is a fan of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered some barriers to trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico. Despite the concerns of Perot, labor leaders, environmentalists and others, the act is “critical to the economy,” he said.
Unfortunately, “highways don’t care about economics,” and Washington’s north-south highways - especially U.S. Highway 395 north of Spokane - are being hammered by the increased truck traffic heading across the Canadian border in both directions.
Commercial traffic on the highways has increased dramatically since NAFTA took effect, and it will increase another 30 percent in the next eight years, Casavant’s research suggests. The roads will become ever more dangerous - and trade ultimately will be harmed - unless the state or federal government spends more on Washington highways, he said.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Casavant said.
An agricultural economist for 27 years, Casavant received $500,000 from the state and federal transportation departments to study how NAFTA is affecting Washington highways. Eight times in two years, he hired 300 Lions Club members to interview truckers at 30 weigh stations throughout the state. It was the first study of its kind in the country.
The findings: Commercial trips into Washington from Canada increased 13 percent in 1994 and another 6 percent last year. Commercial traffic heading the other direction increased 4 percent each of those years.
Casavant attributed those increases directly to NAFTA, and said the most commonly transported goods were lumber and chemicals heading south, and agricultural products going north.
On Highway 395 north of Spokane, 81 percent of the trucks crossed the border during their trips. The state average for north-south highways was 70 percent.
While much of that trade puts people to work in Washington, some of the trucks headed for Canada were filled with the likes of tomatoes from California or beef from Nevada.
Although those out-of-state drivers might buy gas or a meal here, those trips don’t do much for Washington’s economy. Still, state taxpayers must pay for wear and tear to roads.
“We’re a bridge state,” Casavant said. “We’re providing infrastructure for products that aren’t part of our economy.”
A fully loaded 18-wheeler does as much damage as 9,600 cars, Casavant said. He’s still trying to determine how much the truck traffic will shorten the life of asphalt.
Casavant’s study comes as the Legislature is considering ways to increase spending for transportation. Among the options are earmarking more of the motor vehicle excise tax for roads, tapping into the state’s budget surplus or raising the gasoline tax.
Governor-elect Gary Locke, a Democrat, has said he favors a gas-tax increase but wants bipartisan support for the move.
Project 395, a group urging that the highway be widened, plans to lobby the Legislature and Congress to come up with the money somehow, said Teresa Waunch, the group’s founder.
A 1995 study by the state Department of Transportation found that Highway 395 has the highest percentage of double-trailer trucks in the state.
Two people were killed Friday on Highway 395 when their car hit a lumber truck head-on. The driver of that truck, who apparently wasn’t at fault, was not headed out of state.
Casavant said the state’s current gas tax - one of the highest in the country at 23 cents a gallon - “isn’t even close” to covering the needs. Nor is the federal government putting enough into the highways it built in the name of national defense.
“In the 1930s and ‘40s, we laid out and designed our highways,” which were improved in the 1950s and ‘60s, he said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we consumed them.
“Now, in the ‘90s, we’re faced with going back and rebuilding them.”
Casavant acknowledged that raising taxes is unpopular.
“But in this case, it’s a solid investment decision,” the economist said.
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