Spokane rail measure bad for trade-dependent Washington

Forty percent of all jobs in Washington state are tied to the export economy, and freight railroads play a critical role in the transportation network here. In Spokane alone, more than 500 people are directly employed by railroad companies. Photo courtesy of iStock.

There is no question Washington is seeing increasing activism by those who are opposed to industrial projects, especially when fossil fuels are involved. While the goal of project opponents to protect our environment is laudable, their tactics must be viewed through a bigger lens, one that incorporates the impacts on our state and regional economy.

Currently there are proposals in communities across Washington that diminish our state’s infrastructure network and threaten our trade-based economy. For example, next month City of Spokane citizens will consider Proposition 2, a measure that proposes to amend the city’s ordinances making it a civil infraction – punishable by a hefty fine per railroad car – on any companies shipping certain types of energy commodities through Spokane. Proposition 2 seeks to prohibit the shipment of these commodities completely (as the ballot language indicates).

Most residents don’t recognize the direct connection between trains passing through our towns with their regional economic benefits. Forty percent of all jobs in Washington state are tied to our export economy; freight railroads play a critical role in the transportation network of our state, while the entire northwestern region of our nation depends upon our state’s rail system. In Spokane alone, over 500 people are directly employed by railroad companies.

These middle-income family wage jobs, coupled with the other industries such as manufacturing and agriculture, are critically dependent for their livelihood on the freight commerce that moves on the rail network.

Proposition 2 and similar proposals to attack railroads for transporting legal commodities engage in misinformation campaigns utilizing scare tactics to advocate for legislation clearly preempted by Federal Interstate Commerce statutes, asserting this is the best way to “make a statement” about global climate change. Their assertions couldn’t be further from the truth.

First, proponents of Prop 2 argue that the measure will increase public safety and prevent accidents. Yet they choose to ignore factual, longstanding legal precedents that will certainly invalidate this initiative. They are intentionally placing taxpayers on the hook for enormous legal expenses to defend an invalid initiative that they know is doomed to failure, just to convey their message of disapproval.

Secondly, like any form of transportation, accidents cannot be completely eliminated. However, freight rail is one of the safest modes of transportation – especially for hazardous materials. In fact, over 99 percent of all hazardous material shipments by rail reach their destinations without incident. In actuality, the hidden hypocrisy of Prop 2 is that if it passes and then were to overcome federal preemption challenges in the courts, the outcome would simply result in the transfer of these products off trains and onto trucks transporting the same commodities on our states highways instead. This creates a significantly greater risk to the public, increasing likelihood of accidents, more traffic congestion, greater roadway deterioration and an enormous increase in both fossil fuel consumption and pollution emissions.

Each year, the railroad companies make large capital investments to maintain and modernize their rail lines. In 2017, BNSF committed $175 million to Washington’s rail infrastructure for improvements and upgrades to aging track structures. Indications are that even more investment in infrastructure is coming, and that’s good news for those who work on the railroad and for those who ship by rail.

And what about harm to our environment? In the case of Prop 2, which is nothing more than a symbolic effort to denounce fossil fuel use, it will certainly create more problems than it would ever actually solve. Freight rail is the most environmentally sound and efficient way of transporting large quantities of commodities by land. Moving freight by rail rather than trucks lowers greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent – making rail a critical component in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Every rail train takes about 280 trucks off our highways (depending on commodity). Rail is clearly the “greenest” source of ground transportation available today.

Fossil fuels have been transported through Washington state for well over a century; Spokane, our “Inland Empire,” is one of the state’s larger transportation hubs. This year it’s opposition to fossil fuels and Proposition 2; what commodity will be the next target for attack? Chlorine, a product essential to safe public drinking water systems? Anhydrous Ammonia, critical to our agricultural industry? Parts for pollution-generating airplanes transported by rail for Boeing? Or perhaps attacks on the transportation of GMO wheat and other similar agricultural products that some oppose? “Cherry picking” which commodities may pass through cities and those that will be prohibited, just because they can be linked to something adverse is naïvely arbitrary and simply isn’t practical for interstate commerce. That’s exactly why there are longstanding federal laws that regulate interstate transportation of goods.

Frankly, we should be working together with the railroad companies along with railroad labor organizations, who are strongly committed to safety before profits, in identifying comprehensive solutions that will increase public safety while supporting a strong economy and reducing environmental harm — instead of futile and wasteful grandstanding propositions seeking to halt shipments of globally traded legal commodities.

If Washington state expects to continue its long tradition as the country’s most trade-dependent state in the nation, we need more policies that strengthen our trade infrastructure, not jeopardize it.

Herb Krohn has more than 15 years of hands-on railroad experience, including three years with Burlington Northern, and 13 years with Union Pacific. He is the Washington State Legislative Director for the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation (SMART) Division/United Transportation Union.

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