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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stuckart to ask City Council to reconsider ballot measure fining coal, oil trains

FILE - An oil train crosses Sprague and Division Street in Spokane in March 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart will ask his colleagues Monday to withdraw from the November ballot a controversial measure targeting oil and coal trains.

“I’m able to admit when I’m wrong,” Stuckart said Friday. “We may have been a bit hasty.”

The measure, if approved by voters, would make shipping oil and coal through downtown Spokane a civil infraction with a fine of up to $261 per rail car. Stuckart and City Councilman Breean Beggs pitched the measure to ensure that fiery derailments, like the one that occurred in Mosier, Oregon, in June, wouldn’t happen downtown and threaten the Spokane aquifer.

Railroad and business interests questioned the council’s legal authority to impose fines, arguing that Congress and the federal Transportation Department already regulate rail shipping. The council’s own legal adviser, Brian McClatchey, wrote in a memo addressing the ban that there was a “very small chance that this proposed ordinance would survive a legal challenge,” citing a 1970 federal law regulating rail traffic.

The proposed ballot measure has drawn opposition far and wide, including from members of the Montana Petroleum Association, who issued a statement Friday afternoon condemning the ban. The group joins BNSF, the Association of American Railroads and the pro-business group Keep Washington Competitive in criticizing the city measure.

“This is a shortsighted measure being pushed largely by out-of-state special interest groups who don’t understand the role of rail in Spokane or Washington state’s economy,” said Matthew Lebsack, the chairman of Keep Washington Competitive, after the council voted to put the measure on the ballot.

But environmental groups and emergency first responders have supported a public vote on the train ban. The Washington State Council of Firefighters, joined by the Spokane chapter of the International Association of Firefighters Local 29, sent a letter of support this week to the council promising to assist efforts to hold an “informed vote.”

“We’re not in opposition to commerce,” John Goodman, president of the Spokane firefighters union, said in an interview this week. “We’re just concerned about public safety.”

Stuckart said he’ll ask the council to suspend the rules to allow a vote to withdraw the ballot measure at its weekly meeting scheduled Monday night. He’ll need five votes to suspend the rules. Four council members, a majority of the council, will need to vote in favor of withdrawal to take the ban off the ballot.

Beggs, who helped craft the ballot measure, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Withdrawal must occur by Thursday, according to a deadline set by the Spokane County Auditor’s Office. The council will have to vote Monday in order to meet that deadline, Stuckart said.

“Really successful” meetings with railroad executives and review of legal analyses of the ballot measure led to the withdrawal request, Stuckart said. He said putting the issue before voters had already prompted discussions he hadn’t had before the council took the seemingly unprecedented step of proposing fines for train operators.

“It was the first time I felt I was in a room with decision-makers for the railroad companies,” Stuckart said.