Voters reject Spokane rail prop; stakeholders relieved

BNSF Railcar on tracks
Spokane voters rejected a measure which would have placed fees on rail car owners shipping coal and crude oil cars through city limits unless they met certain requirements. Photo: Clay Gilliland

Spokane voters have rejected a ballot proposition that would have placed fees on the shipment of certain fossil fuels through city limits. Business stakeholders say they are relieved that voters recognized the initiative would have been illegal to enforce, while also diverting taxpayer dollars from important city services.

“Ultimately, I would say the voters realized this was just a massive distraction, would be costly to the city and was not something they were interested in adopting to use Spokane as a test case,” said Michael Cathcart, Executive Director of Better Spokane, a Spokane-based civic engagement organization which advocates for greater business consideration in public policy decisions.

During the November 7 general election, Spokane voters rejected the measure by just over 6,500 votes, with 57.5% of voters voting against the proposition.

“Obviously, we were really happy,” said Cathcart. “I think the messaging came across really well so voters understood the unintended consequences of the measure should it pass.”

In August, Cathcart co-led the public awareness campaign of the Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy. The goal was to warn voters of the possible ramifications of approving the proposition.

Proposition 2 would have required rail car owners to pay $261 – per car – for shipping uncovered coal and crude oil cars through Spokane city limits unless they were pressurized to 8 pounds per square inch (psi) or lower.

However, the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) requires oil originating from the Bakken crude fields to be pressurized to 13.7 psi before ever leaving the site. The requirement is considered to be “stable dead crude oil,” while allowing 1 psi margins of error. Also, Governor Jay Inslee signed a 2015 measure into law which requires a pressure reading of 14.69 psi or lower for crude oil traveling through Washington.

In August, a NDIC staff member told Lens the requirement is set to prevent explosions, and there is no evidence to suggest a lower psi would make the oil any safer.

Cathcart said candidates running for city elected positions wanted to focus on other priorities as a city, such as on roads or crime, which seemed to resonate with voters. He added that the proposition would create side issues for Spokane.

“If this were to pass and actually be enforced it wouldn’t change anything,” he added. “What it would have done was to push these materials on other forms of transportation that would likely move through the community.”

Railroad officials who ship through the city also expressed relief at the news.

“We are very pleased to see the voters say that this is not a safety issue and that this is illegal. It really speaks to the importance of rail in the state of Washington,” said Courtney Wallace, Regional Director for Public Affairs with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway. “Rail is the safest way to move commodities, and we will continue to move them…including coal and oil.”

Wallace said the initiative would have been a waste of taxpayer dollars that would be better spent on hiring additional police officers, fixing roads or adding infrastructure. She added that the coupling of coal and oil in the proposition highlighted the true intention of the campaign.

“It was a false narrative to say coal and crude were wrapped around safety,” said Wallace. “Coal is not hazardous. There are other materials moved on various transportation methods that are considered hazardous. BNSF would not be in business if we didn’t run a safe railroad.”

Wallace added that the railways are regulated by the federal government so trade can flow freely through the U.S., and that it is especially important for trade to move freely into Washington, as 40 percent of jobs here are tied to trade.

Spokane City Councilmember Breean Beggs was one of the measure’s backers. He told Lens the campaign contributions were one of the main reasons for the proposition’s rejection.

The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy raised $354,000, with the largest donations coming from BNSF, Lighthouse Resources Inc. and Cloud Peak Energy. Safer Spokane, the proposition’s backer, raised a little over $7,000.

“It wasn’t really unexpected given they spent that much money,” said Beggs of the campaign undertaken to educate citizens about the ramifications of enacting the measure. “I was of course hoping it would pass because it was a safer policy for a safer city.”

Cathcart said the city makes it easy to qualify an initiative for the ballot, and he wouldn’t be surprised if a similar measure appeared next year. “I could certainly see them trying this again. The legality of the measure isn’t going to change, but maybe how they campaign might.”

Wallace agreed. “There will likely be other pushes on this, because I think it’s a broader conversation beyond rail safety. I think the conversation is more on climate change and fossil fuel use. Trains and rail are a convenient way to get that message out…I do think you will see other pushes on similar initiatives.”

Beggs said proponents of the proposition had reached out to state lawmakers to try and get a bill moved through the legislature that would accomplish the same goal. He added the backers were meeting this week to discuss future strategies, however, nothing is set in stone.

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