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Corridor made No. 1 priority

Build the North Spokane Corridor and, some believe, the Inland Northwest could become the next international freight hub.

Let the project lie fallow, and transport companies already here will struggle.

The corridor is becoming the No. 1 priority of an emerging local transportation group lobbying for highway, rail and airport improvements.

The timing of the pitch is built around growing recognition that West Coast port cities like Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles are overburdened with cargo. The nation’s expanding trade with Mexico and Canada is offering new opportunities for federal investment that local leaders are working to tap into.

Spokane is well-positioned to pick up the slack, said Judy Cole, Avista Corp.’s director of business and public policy.

“We got into this because we were interested in the connection between transportation and economic prosperity,” Cole said.

Avista recently submitted a $500,000 grant proposal to Sen. Patty Murray to study how to make the Inland Northwest a global gateway for cargo.

In the Spokane area, 52,000 jobs rely on that system, said Barbara Ivanov, director of the Washington State Transportation Department’s freight strategy and policy program.

Ivanov has been traveling across the state talking to shippers, freight companies, elected officials and business leaders about where the state’s transportation system is keeping cargo moving and where it is breaking down.

North-south Spokane connections are a big problem, said trucking company representatives at a recent freight mobility meeting hosted by the local chambers of commerce, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, WSDOT and Inland Empire Distribution Systems.

If the North Spokane Corridor were open today between Interstate 90 and the Wandermere area, it would save Roadway Express about $638,000 a year in fuel and labor, said Gary Laursen, a senior account representative with the company in Spokane.

“For Spokane, the north-south corridor is one of the highest priorities we have,” Laursen said.

Right now the project is only partially funded. The section from Francis Avenue to Wandermere is scheduled to be complete by 2008, but more than $1 billion more is needed to finish it to I-90.

Highways aren’t the only factor to consider, however. Spokane has potential to attract more air cargo shipments.

Spokane International Airport has lower cargo landing fees than other West Coast airports and fewer delays, said airport spokesman Todd Woodard.

And with a planned 2,000-foot runway extension, the airport could handle even the heaviest planes during the hot summer months when they need extra takeoff space.

All the pieces have to work together to move goods to their destinations.

“Without the system we would have no clothes, we would have no food, no parts for our cars. We would have no gas – nothing we use,” said Ivanov.