Paving paths for education and transportation are not mutually exclusive

Contributing writerJune 2, 2013 

Here is some stuff I know, the “how high did the guy say the load on my trailer was? And what was the height on that low-clearance sign I just passed?” edition.

 • OK, we understand the importance of a robust higher-education sector to Tacoma and Pierce County. In fact this column is on record as pushing for the region to do more leveraging of the academic institutions and programs it has for business and economic development. We’ve highlighted the establishment of local programs in entrepreneurship and cybersecurity as the sort of potential-rich subject areas that will contribute to the region’s long-term economic vitality. And we’ve lobbied for additional locally based programs, most importantly in international shipping and logistics.

So we ought to be enthusiastically applauding news of an effort to add a high-profile academic program here, as the TNT’s Kathleen Cooper reported a group of business and civic leaders is working on.

Still, if you were going to choose an academic program to add to this region, would your choice be ... law?

The advocates of starting a small night-school law program at the University of Washington-Tacoma argue, not without some persuasiveness, that having one would keep talented students at home instead of heading to Seattle to get a degree and launch or advance their careers, and provide local employers a pool from which to draw. The proximity of Tacoma to Olympia, the sausage factory of lawmaking for the state of Washington, and the inescapable (if sometimes lamentable) fact that laws and contracts figure into every aspect of modern life provide further support to the idea.

Setting up a local law school would also undo a decision made two decades ago but which still rankles civic pride today: the University of Puget Sound’s sale of its law school to Seattle University which, unsurprisingly, moved it to Seattle.

On the other side of the ledger: the cost of establishing another law school when higher-ed budgets are already squeezed, the scramble by many law schools nationally to find students and the scramble by many law-school graduates to find work and pay off the huge debts they incurred getting a degree in a field for which employment opportunities are currently weak.

Beyond those concerns is the broader, long-term issue of just what should be on Tacoma’s priority list for bolstering the higher-ed sector locally.

Might one want to put engineering at the top of that list?

Yes one might. We might like some civil engineers, for example, to design bridges to replace those being knocked down by oversized trucks. Or computer software engineers, since software, almost as much as law, winds up in everything these days.

The engineering offerings locally are limited. Both PLU and Puget Sound have dual-degree engineering programs in which students spend the first two years at the local school, then a few more at an affiliated school with an engineering program and wind up with degrees from both.

The need for more training of engineers has been recognized even in cities with programs. Boston-based Northeastern University, sensing a market opening, established a Seattle campus with a particular emphasis on multiple engineering disciplines. Snohomish County leaders have been lobbying for years for a polytechnic school based there.

Other than the demand for financial resources (and admittedly, that’s a huge “other than”), the idea of a new law school and more engineering programs in Tacoma need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, if those budding lawyers want computer systems on which to do research (and protect their information), buildings to work in and highways to get to those buildings, they might well appreciate having a few engineers around.

And speaking of civil engineering ...

 • Among the challenges to operating a business in the Pacific Northwest are the relatively small size of the home market, the distance to other substantial markets and the limited number of routes to those other markets.

Pull out a U.S. highway atlas sometime and look at the East Coast, Midwest and Southeast. Not only are major-market densities greater, there are usually multiple options for getting from one to another. The temporary loss of an interstate may force a longer, roundabout journey but it doesn’t sever the link entirely.

Not so true in Western Washington. The corridors are limited and vulnerable, as the Skagit River bridge collapse and smaller “events” like a jackknifed truck on Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle remind us.

Keeping what options there are drives much of the conversation about highway projects on this side of the mountains. The Alaskan Way viaduct is being replaced by a tunnel not because anyone cares about getting into Seattle but because they care about getting through Seattle, and the only north-south alternatives are I-5 and 405.

The Puget Sound Gateway – the fancy name for extending state Route 167 interstate-style from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma, isn’t a north-south alternative, but it opens a connection to a north-south alternative to I-5 that many motorists already use, state routes 167 (the Valley Freeway) and 512. That’s significant not just for getting to the warehouses and distribution centers along that corridor, but for getting to eastern and southwestern Washington and points beyond even faster.

Heightened awareness of the region’s economic vulnerability to I-5 pinch points with few alternatives (such as over the Columbia River at Portland-Vancouver) might just be enough to push a transportation “package” that includes the Puget Sound Gateway to approval. If that happens, local backers of the project can assign some of the credit to the trucking company that so dramatically reminded the region of those vulnerabilities – not that a “thank you” card is appropriate in this case.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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