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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Spokane can balance rail traffic, safety and jobs

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich ,Sen. Michael Baumgartner

Do you want Washington to have more great blue-collar jobs and increased funding for education and mental health? If so, you should join us in supporting the Millennium Bulk Terminals in the upcoming hearing sessions.

As the permitting process progresses for both MBT and Gateway Pacific Terminal proposals, critics have voiced concerns about them. Locally, opponents have emphasized increased train traffic, public safety and the lack of benefit for our region.

While discussion of these issues is important, as public servants here, we must set the record straight.

First, the assertion that increased rail traffic will compromise public safety is uninformed. Our first responders are fully trained and well-equipped to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies – including those affected by fluctuations in rail traffic. We have been prepping and responding to rail emergencies in Spokane for over a century, and we have a long-standing history in working cooperatively with the railroads to do so.

That cooperation is a prime example of the way we do things here in Washington. We may differ philosophically on the benefit of any given project or proposal, but we are committed to a reasonable conversation where all parties are heard. So from a public-safety perspective, it’s important to dispel the notion that the growth of rail here will have a negative effect on the ability of first responders to keep our community safe. It won’t.

Our region stands to benefit in many ways from the development of these ports, and to be harmed if they aren’t. While people differ philosophically on the projects, in large part because coal would be one of the commodities exported, focusing on that aspect is shortsighted and compromises the overall economic gains we stand to make.

Trade and rail have been the lifeblood of both the state and our community, with an estimated one in three jobs tied to this sector of the economy. As it is, plenty of rail traffic carrying cleaner Powder River Basin coal from Montana and Wyoming goes through Washington, with at least four coal trains a day running through Eastern Washington to Seattle and on up to ports in British Columbia. Our community should feel a new optimism about our economic outlook because of the jobs and revenues these projects will generate.

Eastern Washington needs more business development – not the status quo; certainly not less. While Western Washington – particularly King County – is seeing notable job growth and recovery, most counties across the state are still burdened by significant unemployment rates. Spokane County shows higher rates of unemployment than the state average, and Ferry and Stevens counties’ rates are almost twice ours.

That imbalance needs to be remedied, and expanding our ability to export our goods holds tremendous promise, particularly for our agriculture and manufacturing sectors, and for many others as well. The terminals would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue for teachers’ salaries, hospital staffing, mental health or local infrastructure improvements. They would also create many jobs, directly and indirectly. These are real, family-wage jobs that put food on the table and provide for education and other vital needs.

The focus of the conversation should be on the potential for job creation, trade growth and investment in our infrastructure. Coal is headed to Asia via the Pacific Northwest with or without the proposed terminals; the only question is whether Washington will reap the economic benefits. The thousands of jobs and significant revenue the expansion of these export terminals would bring to our region are absolutely critical to our economic growth and well-being.

Ozzie Knezovich is the sheriff of Spokane County. Sen. Michael Baumgartner represents Washington’s 6th Legislative District.

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