The Inland Pacific Hub, a group that wants to improve the regional air, ground, and rail transportation systems and position the region better for global commerce, plans to hire a consultant later this month for a second phase of planning.
Hub project manager Ryan Stewart says that consulting firm will develop what's being called a Transportation Investment and Project Blueprint. Based on information gathered during the project's first planning phase, which was completed in September of 2009, the blueprint document will include a prioritized list of future projects in the region, as well as possible funding sources for those efforts, he says. Some of those initiatives might include bringing more international flights to Spokane International Airport and seeking to boost the number of freight train stops in Spokane to load and unload cargo.
Phase two's Project Blueprint is expected to be completed in November, Stewart says.
The Inland Pacific Hub encompasses 10 counties in Eastern Washington, including Spokane County, and nine counties in North Idaho, including Kootenai County. Its advisory board is comprised of elected officials, government-agency employees, and representatives from Inland Northwest companies.
A consulting team from the Minneapolis office of Columbia, S.C.-based Wilbur Smith Associates conducted the first-phase study, which involved gathering information on the region's existing freight and transportation facilities, Stewart says.
The consultant's findings included an extensive analysis of information provided by regional businesses, such as freight-activity levels, supply-chain structures, and local business' opinions on existing transportation services in the region. This information was then compiled into a database, he says.
First-phase work also included compiling an inventory of existing transportation and economic assets in the region, such as rail lines, regional airports, highways, waterborne cargo routes, and information-technology infrastructure.
"Having that inventory helps us know where our gaps are, and also where the real opportunity areas are for recruiting new businesses to our area and fostering new employment," Stewart says. "Now, we need to say, 'How do we capitalize on those opportunities to bridge those gaps?'"
Such current transportation facilities, he says, have the potential to bring more commercial trade and business to the area if appropriate steps are taken to maximize those resources.
"These are all existing things, but now we need to say how we can take advantage of them," he says of this next planning phase. "How do we encourage international flights into Spokane?"
He says another opportunity for increased trade activity in the region is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway viaduct that cuts through downtown Spokane. He says a large number of the trains that pass through the city travel between the Puget Sound and the Midwest, making as few stops as possible along the way.
"If you have enough products to fill up a train you can get them to stop," he says. "If it's a large enough consumer base for them to stop and load or unload cargo, they will."
Developing further the areas nearest to the rail lines, highways, and airports is another way to improve the Inland Northwest's potential for trade activity, Stewart says.
"Having a logistics complex or a port district available heavily influences manufacturers and their decisions on where to be located," he says.
He says phase two's Transportation Blueprint also will include a list of possible financing sources for future projects, including federal, state, local, and private sources.
Of the $532,700 that was secured for the first-phase work, the Hub spent $514,500, Stewart says. Funding sources for that phase included the Washington state Legislature, the Spokane Regional Transportation Commission, the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization, and an Idaho community grant.
The unspent funds from that phase will be applied to the second-phase scope of work, he says, for which about $426,800 has been secured so far. The estimated budget to hire the consulting firm for phase two is about $350,000, he says, adding that the remaining funds from phase two will be used for public outreach and promotion of the Hub's vision.
The Inland Pacific Hub concept began forming in late 2005 through discussions between local civic and business leaders who felt that the region might not be taking full advantage of its potential economic development opportunities associated with domestic and international trade.
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