Spokane County Commissioner Al French says the county soon will submit a request for proposals to operate what he calls a “transitional transload rail facility” on the West Plains, just east of Fairchild Air Force Base.
French has spearheaded Spokane County’s effort to eventually develop a complete transload facility on what’s known as the Geiger Spur. The spur is 3,000 feet of rail that is located between Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base.
“It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when this is going to happen,” French says. “We’re putting the finishing touches on an RFP (request for proposals) and should have it out to bid very soon.”
A transload facility would allow for faster transportation of goods and products in and out of the region, say supporters of the idea.
Spokane-area business leaders long have viewed the West Plains as an ideal location to grow the area’s aerospace and shipping industries. Having immediate access to rail lines could help to boost manufacturing orders for nearby businesses, French says.
Robin Toth, vice president for business development at Greater Spokane Incorporated, says a transload facility could spur greater economic activity across the West Plains.
“Any addition to our transportation assets is a huge benefit to Spokane,” Toth says.
French, a Spokane architect, says he’s had contact over the past year with roughly a half-dozen railroad operators gauging their interest in operating the transload facility.
The company that’s awarded the bid will be required to provide its own docks and other temporary staging platforms for the purpose of loading and unloading rail cars, French says.
French says he’s talked with Eastern Washington Gateway Railroad Co., based in Des Plaines, Ill., about possibly operating the transload facility. Eastern Washington Gateway currently operates the Geiger Spur, he says.
French says he’s also talked with Spokane-based Inland Empire Distribution Systems Inc. and Waste Management Inc. as other potential operators.
The first phase of the project wouldn’t come at a cost to taxpayers. The goal is to build volume at the site over at least a year’, at which point the next step for the county would be to construct a complete transload facility that would cost $4 million to $4.5 million, French says.
He adds that Spokane County would apply for grant assistance from the state for the complete facility. A more comprehensive transload facility would be more expansive and have overhead crane equipment for lifting heavier loads, he says.
French says the idea of creating a transload facility—the process of transferring a shipment from one mode of transportation to another—is based on talks he’s had with several Seattle-area manufacturers who are frustrated with delays in shipping using congested rail lines and freeways on the West Side.
“These are advanced manufacturers, product handlers and assemblers, and assemblers of finished goods who are considering moving anywhere from parts of operations to all of their operations here due to congestion on the other side of the state,” he says.
As for businesses here, French declines to identify companies he’s had conversations with that have expressed interest in seeing a transload facility built on the West Plains.
Says fellow County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, “We’re always looking for economic opportunities that we think will benefit the community.”
The Geiger Spur rail line was realigned in 2008 to preserve and create jobs on the West Plains and to ease security concerns at Fairchild Air Force Base, says Spokane County assistant engineer Chad Coles.
Before the realignment, the spur ran from the BNSF Railway Co. line just north of Fairchild, to the east just inside the northern edge of the base, then turned south and ran along the base’s eastern boundary as far south as McFarlane Road. From there, the line ran east once again—as it still does—along McFarland before ending at Hayford Road, Coles says.
In 2004, BNSF planned to abandon the spur, which would’ve meant the loss of several hundred jobs, but it instead donated the line to Spokane County in October of that year, he says.
“BNSF couldn’t make a profit off the spur and was just ready to scrap it,” Coles says. “But there were enough businesses there and the county was very interested in keeping those rail-dependent businesses going.”
County and state officials closed the part of the spur that ran through Fairchild and connected with the BNSF line to the north, constructed a new section that runs to the south and connected it with the Palouse River-Coulee City (PRCC) rail line near Medical Lake. The PRCC line connects up with a BNSF main line near Cheney, Coles says.
The $6.8 million project was funded by the state. The work began in in June 2008, and the newly realigned spur became operational in January 2009. It parallels Fairchild’s eastern boundary from McFarlane about 3.5 miles south to the PRCC line, Coles says.
Todd Woodard, spokesman for Spokane Airports, says a transload facility would complement operations at Spokane International Airport.
“Clearly, a transloader is an excellent piece of infrastructure to what is already a vibrant transportation area in our region,” Woodard says.
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