How mini-marshmallows and a vital transportation system are inextricably linked

For those of you who follow politics but don't have the time to attend the public hearings here in Olympia, you may be interested to know the latest on transportation issues, particularly after the heavy storms we've had this winter.

This week Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond spoke to the state House and Senate Transportation Committees on the "state of transportation" in Washington and our flood response.

One of the points that Paula wanted to convey is how important safe, reliable transportation is to all of us and the economy – no surprise to anyone who's ever had to commute to work during rush hour.

But it goes beyond merely getting to work early enough to grab a decent parking space and that second cup of coffee.

It's about a transportation system that's the backbone of our economy. It's about a system that allows hardworking people to get to their job, be it at a shopping center, warehouse, farm, business park, or manufacturing plant. And let's not forget – when it comes to quality of life issues, we all want safe, reliable transportation, because it gets us to the grocery store, shopping, schools for our children, and entertainment.

"Great," you say, "so what's the problem?"

This past winter was the problem. Question: During Christmas Week, did anyone do any grocery shopping? (The answer is "yes," unless you ate your new DVD player.) You may have noticed that some of the store shelves were empty, or at least lacking the usual amount of products you've come to expect. This may have been due to the convergence of two factors: The grocery industry's practice of Just In Time delivery, and the unusually heavy snow we got in December.

Grocery stores typically don't keep huge supplies of inventory on hand (perishables, for example), but they can usually count on that item being replenished on a regular basis – except when the delivery trucks are delayed. Then those store shelves begin to get mighty empty very quickly, and you find yourself searching for items which ordinarily wouldn't be that difficult to find.

In my case, it was mini-marshmallows.

My mother wanted mini-marshmallows for hot chocolate. Not just any kind, mind you, but the mini ones. I braved icy roads and treacherous parking lots at three different stores, and I had to go home and tell the woman who gave me life that I couldn't find her mini-marshmallows. So we wallowed in our self-pity, sipping plain hot chocolate.

So that was my first practical demonstration of the value of a reliable transportation system.

Don't misunderstand, the system is working, but it's stressed by a growing population, and it needs tender loving care, especially after such a hard winter. Travel safety is improving, which is great, but we can always do more. Then there are the future investments we have to make to our whole system: highways, transit, ferries and non-motorized travel. Finally, we should focus on getting smart about growing demand, wringing the most mileage we can out of past investments, and finding a way to accommodate future commuters in a way that's sensible and sustainable.

So there you have it – a very abbreviated version of the presentation that Paula gave to our state Legislature's Transportation committees. As you can see, our state Legislature has some tough decisions to make about the future of our transportation system.