Leaders from both business and labor camps gathered in Tacoma on Aug. 22 to throw their support behind proposed export expansions in Washington State – expansions which would increase capabilities for the trade of bulk commodities such as timber and coal.
Speaking at the Simpson Room at World Trade Center Tacoma were Mark Martinez, executive secretary at the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO; Toby Murray, president of timber company Murray Pacific; and Mike Elliott, chair of the Washington State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Prior to the press conference, local business leaders and executives met with senior representatives of the proposed expansions at an hour-long invite-only forum.
“It’s usually kind of interesting when labor guys stand up with the big industrialists to talk about an issue that’s extremely important to us,” said Martinez, whose organization represents about 5,000 workers who live in Pierce County. “Basically, that’s jobs. The construction industry’s been hit really hard during this recession. We’re not quite seeing the upturn that a lot of other folks are doing. We’re trying to find projects and other things to get our folks back to work, basically.”
Martinez called initiatives such as the Millennium Bulk Terminals Longview proposal – where $600 million worth of construction work could put 2,600 people to work – and the Gateway Pacific coal terminal project in Cherry Point as “extremely important to us.”
“We just want to get people back to work,” he said.
The projects have long been controversial for a variety of reasons, from the environmental impact of increased coal rail shipping to potential traffic issues caused by more trains. And while neither the Longview or Cherry Point projects are immediately local, the myriad miles of railroad criss-crossing the South Sound area have raised some reservations within the regional business community. Earlier this year, for example, Andrea Keikkala of the Kent Chamber of Commerce expressed concerns that “coal trains would create significant adverse impact on local jobs and businesses.”
Keikkala cited estimates ranging from one to two hours of additional daily delays from new coal trains passing through Kent, which would potentially harm the city’s status as the second largest industrial and warehouse distribution hub on the West Coast.
Still, Murray, whose company was, in his words, “in the middle of the spotted owl wars in the 90s,” sees the terminals as an opportunity to restore economic activity impacted by the regulatory climate throughout the state. And Elliott said that missing out on this opportunity could send shipping business north to Canada, where rail networks and ports are being upgraded to handle demand.
“They’re gearing up to ship coal,” he said. “If we don’t ship it, they’re going to ship it. We want to see all commodities come in our share of freight for our highline corridor that’s been the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest for 100 years. Ã¢ï¿½Â¦ Remember, a lot of the coal they’re shipping now is metallurgical coal, for making steel and other metals. But they’re looking at the thermal possibilities as well, because there’s a market for it.”
While World Trade Center Tacoma was asked by members BNSF and Millennium Bulk Terminals to help organize the conference and provide the venue, the group doesn’t have an official position on the issue. WTC President and CEO Anthony Hemstad described his group as “agnostic” regarding the expansion projects, although he did acknowledge that increased rail traffic is the foremost local concern.
“Really, the local local impact is more that transit impact, in that there would be x number of trains going through,” Hemstad said. “I’m a Kent resident, too. I’ve stopped many times waiting for trains to go by. But we’re a transportation corridor, and it is what it is.”
In a macro sense, Hemstad said that his group is here to grow trade, and having more bulk export capacity is inherently good for that goal.
“The benefit is that it draws more investment to Washington state, which can create more jobs indirectly,” Hemstad said. “The more traffic and business the railroads are going to be getting, the more they’re going to be investing here, too. It is encouraging that the railroads are making significant investments.”