Spokane Journal of Business

Don't let big terminal get derailed

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Recently, I sat down with members of Greater Spokane Incorporated, the Spokane City Council, the Legislature, and local labor organizations to talk about two things that we all agree are important to Spokane: jobs and agriculture.

    The reason I visited was to discuss the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a proposed export facility that would be located in Whatcom County and link to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway system. The new terminal would expand capacity and provide farmers and other exporters with an efficient new portal for exports to growing markets in Asia. Upon completion, the privately funded project would create 1,250 permanent family-wage jobs and generate nearly $140 million of salaries and tax revenues in Washington state each year.  

    In the face of growing competition, including the Panama Canal expansion, we must do more to ensure our farmers have efficient, cost-effective access to global markets. Every item we export from Pacific Northwest ports contributes to our state economy and creates jobs. The Gateway Pacific Terminal would boost exports, including grains, potash, coal, and other commodities, from our local producers and those in neighboring states.

    One would expect our elected representatives would support such a project, yet what we see is an unprecedented, expansive regulatory review process. Not only does this threaten to delay our project, but it threatens the growth of rail use in our state. We can't allow the state to constrict that growth. Forty percent of the jobs in Washington are tied to international trade, and rail is the linchpin connecting our producers and manufacturers to the ports.

    Some critics of this project have turned this into a debate over rail. They are trying to portray rail as being a bad environmental choice for bulk transport. The reality is that rail is the environmental option for transportation. In fact, according to a recent independent study for the Federal Railroad Administration, railroads on average are four times more fuel efficient than trucks.

    Moving more freight by rail also reduces highway congestion, which costs us $101 billion each year just in wasted time (4.8 billion hours) and wasted fuel (1.9 billion gallons), says a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute. And let's not forget: Rail is the backbone of our regional trade economy. This proposed terminal gives us the chance to invest dollars into a rapidly aging system, something will help all commodities.

    Today's heavily regulated approach to commerce troubles me, and I know there are many people who share these concerns. Business leaders, farmers, trade organizations, elected officials, and others need to get engaged, to follow the decisions being made in Olympia, and to demand that our path is toward a stronger and more competitive economy.

    We need to find a way to increase export capacity and invest in infrastructure. We need to make it easy for businesses to flourish in Washington state, rather than compelling them to go elsewhere. We need to realize that it is one thing to say you are a trade-based state, but it is another to do everything you can to support trade, exports, and job growth. Those are tough challenges, but I am confident we have a growing coalition of supporters around the state.

    More than anything, I want to avoid coming back to Spokane a couple of years from now and hearing these questions: What happened to our competitive infrastructure system? How come there isn't any more agriculture capacity at our ports? If we work together today, I'm hoping those questions won't need to be asked tomorrow.

Bob Watters is senior vice president and director of business development for Seattle-based SSA Marine, one of the largest shipping terminal operators and stevedores in the world

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