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Sun., Feb. 16, 2014

Editorial: Port district status would be good for entire region

Land-locked Spokane County needs a port district, and legislation advancing in Olympia could help put a proposal to create one on the November 2015 ballot.

Washington law has provided for port districts since 1911, and since then 75 counties and cities have used port districts to build and manage some of the state’s most valuable economic assets, from Sea-Tac Airport to inland grain terminals. But Spokane County votes roundly rejected a proposed port in 1981, and public and private officials have regretted the lack of one ever since.

The recent push to secure a major aerospace plant has revitalized efforts to form a district.

Anyone who has seen Boeing 737 fuselages rolling across the downtown railroad viaduct can appreciate the importance of track that could connect a new plant to the main rail lines. That is the kind of infrastructure a port district could construct.

In Moses Lake, to give another example, the port district built a wastewater treatment facility that expanded the community’s capacity to accommodate new businesses.

But improvements to existing economic assets are also legitimate port undertakings. Loads over the Sullivan Street bridge, for example, had to be lightened or redirected until it could be reinforced. Because of the bridge’s importance to the Spokane Business and Industrial Park, Kaiser Aluminum and other major employers, a port district could have undertaken the complete overhaul that will soon go out to bid.

The proposed legislation will do two things: Allow the formation of less-than-countywide districts, and make it a two-stage process.

If approved, cities or other jurisdictions with assessed valuations of more than $150 million could form port districts if they act before the end of 2020. Witnesses from Ellensburg and Oroville told legislators their communities might be prepared to form districts that voters in their counties, Kittitas and Okanogan, would reject.

Spokane representatives testified for a second section of the bill, one that would put formation of a district – and the levy to support one – before voters in one election, with a vote on district commissioners later. Separating the elections allows voters to decide on the merits of a district without the distraction of candidates with political agendas, and baggage.

Both provisions of these bills, HB 2547 and SB 6315, make sense, and both passed out of House and Senate committees with strong support. Which should tell us something.

Probably every legislator but those representing Spokane lives in a county that is or contains a port district. They know they work, and the pending modifications improve the process for creating more.

Spokane County residents will have the opportunity to consider the costs and benefits of a district when the time comes, but not before 2015. In the meantime, the Legislature should finish the work it has begun on these bills, and local officials should start explaining the value of an economic tool almost everyone else in Washington already has at hand.

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