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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gateway Pacific Terminal: Pro: economic benefits, export growth potential outweighs traffic concerns

Bob Watters And Don Brunell

Our state is driven by exports. In fact, four out of 10 of us owe our livelihoods to international trade. And trade cannot happen without a healthy rail system – which we definitely have.

Freight rail adds $28.5 billion to Washington’s economy each year, and it supports 342,000 jobs; more than 10 percent of the state workforce.

Interstate commerce drives the state economy.  Nearly one-third of Washington’s economic growth can be directly attributed to exports, and almost one-half of the new jobs created are export-related.  Yet export partners say they need more capacity at Washington ports to stay competitive.

Spokane’s relationship with rail has always been complicated, given the city’s reliance upon it and close location to it. As exports and trade go up, so does rail traffic. That’s why Spokane is a key participant in the ongoing discussion about our state’s future and how we support trade.

Gateway Pacific Terminal is a $665 million export facility proposed for Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham.  When completed, the Gateway Pacific Terminal will create a link between rail and ocean-going vessels, and help producers of dry bulk commodities ship low-sulfur coal, grain and potash to world markets. The project will help the Northwest increase its economic competitiveness in global markets and provide much needed construction and permanent jobs, added economic gains, and tax revenues for our schools, colleges, public safety and human services. 

In the past few years, a lot of the debate over this proposed facility has involved misconceptions about rail.  Concern has been expressed over potential changes in rail traffic that could result from increasing our exports.  Yet, interestingly, pollster Stuart Elway recently found that a whopping 73 percent either strongly agree or agree that an increase in train traffic indicates a growing economy. Further, 75 percent either strongly agree or agree that increased train traffic that supports growth at Washington ports is important. And 75 percent of those surveyed say that increased wait times at rail crossings affects them either slightly or not at all.

Clearly, our region supports rail and knows what it means to us.

And BNSF Railway has been a good partner.  In fact, BNSF has invested $42 billion since 2000 to improve infrastructure, equipment, technology and emergency response training, including a record $4 billion last year.  BNSF plans to invest a record $5 billion in 2014. 

At the same time, a recent white paper tells us that freight rail adds $28.5 billion to Washington’s economy each year. The Washington Council on International Trade (WCIT) and BNSF Railway commissioned University of Oregon Professor Phillip Romero to conduct a comprehensive and independent evaluation of the economic impact of freight rail in Washington.  Romero served as the chief economist for two governors of California and the Rand Corp. He is also a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and other national publications and broadcasters. 

 According to the study, Washington is more than twice as export-intensive as the U.S. average. In 2012, Washington exported $10,950 per capita vs. $4,938 for the United States as a whole. This is the second-highest among states. 

Gateway Pacific Terminal and the infrastructure improvements it could bring to our critical rail system could hold the key to economy prosperity for all of us.

We know Spokane cares about trade. And, we know Spokane cares about the capacity the bulk export terminal could provide for shipping a variety of products. But critics cannot get past the fact that coal is one of those products.  There is a passion to the opponents’ rhetoric, and an unwillingness to have civic discourse. These are complicated issues, and we want to work together with Spokane residents to find a way to grow our economy and get everyone back on their feet.

Bob Watters is senior vice president of SSA Marine, developer of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Don Brunell is a consultant and former president of the Association of Washington Business.
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