Freight rail must roll on

diesel train on tracks
The future of our state’s economy — and the state’s agriculture industry— rests on a robust rail system. Photo: BNSF.com

A new report by the Washington State Department of Transportation offers some pretty high praise for our state’s freight network and the rail lines that keep our trade-based economy rolling.

Published this past December, the 2017 Freight System Plan emphasizes the importance of freight rail as part of the state’s overall freight transportation system — a system that plays a “critical role in fostering economic vitality and competitiveness in regional and global markets.”

In the plan, officials call out the agriculture and food-manufacturing sector specifically as “the cornerstone of Washington’s economy in both rural communities and metropolitan areas.”  As readers well know, food and agriculture are a $49 billion industry in this state, employing about 140,000 people, comprising 13 percent of the state’s economy, the report notes.  What’s more, agriculture generates income and employment on farms in all 39 counties, serving as the “economic pillar of many rural communities.”

Those of us involved in ag know these facts like the backs of our hands — we live them every day. But there are some in this state who insist that moving cargo by rail — especially fossil fuels — is a threat and must be stopped. And that’s a serious concern for anyone whose livelihood is connected to the agriculture and food industry.

In fact, it should be a concern for everyone, since most of what we eat, wear, buy and use comes to us via rail. Casting aspersions on rail is the latest way to try and shut down the movement of fossil fuels through our state, as we’ve seen recently with the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals project in Longview.

Simply put, moving commodities by rail remains the safest mode of transport for all products, from agriculture to manufacturing, and has been for centuries. And according to the report, the state is not abandoning freight rail anytime soon – nor should it.

In the new report, the state lays out three objectives guiding development of the plan, including “maintaining Washington’s competitive position as a global gateway, supporting farm-to-market, manufacturing and resource industry sectors in rural economies,” and “developing an urban goods movement system that provides goods delivery to residents and businesses, supports jobs, bolters the economy and affords clean air for all.”

These are lofty goals that will require continued investments of private infrastructure dollars into our state’s freight rail system. Fortunately, we have private partners willing to make those investments. In 2017, BNSF invested $175 million in Washington state in capital expansion and maintenance; it invested another $200 million the year before that.

What’s more, rail is a major employer in our state. Freight rail employs nearly 4,000 people in Washington state and supports another 342,000 jobs. And freight-dependent industries, including agriculture, provide nearly half (46 percent) of all jobs in Washington state.

If state electeds and policymakers are sincere about achieving these objectives, rail must be an integral element of that plan. And yet, the continued attacks on freight rail in this state grossly contradict the crucial role it plays in Washington’s economy and our daily lives.

Critics of rail point to environmental concerns about diesel emissions caused by trains. In reality, there is no better, safer or environmentally efficient way to transport any commodity than by train. A single train can move as much as 280 semi trucks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent. Putting those same commodities on trucks would be a disaster for our economy and would exacerbate our already congested roadways. While the WSDOT report does include a section on environmental concerns related to freight emissions, most of the report’s concerns are focused on emissions from diesel trucks, not trains.

The future of our state’s economy — and the state’s agriculture industry— rests on a robust rail system. To say otherwise is to ignore the many benefits that rail brings to our state, and to the quality of life we all enjoy.

John Stuhlmiller is CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau and an advisory board member of Keep Washington Competitive.

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