Spokane rail initiative – likely unenforceable, illegal – qualifies for ballot; critics say it threatens local & regional economy

We’ve written before about the “double standard” for rail, applying different rules to the evaluation of rail projects based on the commodities being transported. An initiative that seems headed for the November ballot in Spokane serves a the latest example of the trend.

Keep Washington Competitive, a pro-tradecoalition of business, labor, and agricultural groups,  writes in a press release,

A proposal deemed unenforceable — and unconstitutional — by city legal advisors to ban rail cars carrying fossil fuels through Spokane will likely appear on the November 2017 ballot, putting taxpayers on the hook for a legal fight and threatening local, state and regional trade efforts.

Proponents of Initiative No. 2016-6, turned in signatures to the City of Spokane Monday in an attempt to make the ballot.

According to KWC,

Last fall, the city’s own hearing examiner, Brian McGinn, reviewed the measure, calling it both “illegal” and “unenforceable.” Under the proposal, the shippers of oil and coal would be fined $261 per car and would be banned from moving the product through the city limits. Federal law considers railroads “common carriers,” requiring them to move fossil fuel products, among other commodities.

The Inlander reports,

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who opposes the measure, says the initiative is less about safety and more about targeting fossil fuels.

“It’s not truly about public safety,” Knezovich told the Inlander earlier this year. “This is a political argument about climate change and fossil fuels.”

The KWC release quotes several business leaders speaking out on the initiative.

Michael Cathcart, executive director of Better Spokane, said the backers of the initiative fail to understand the greater impact this measure stands to have on the Inland Northwest economy.

“This is illegal, pure and simple,” said Cathcart. “The railroads have moved fossil fuels through Spokane for decades, and rail remains the safest, most efficient means of moving these commodities. Yet because of the politics around fossil fuels, we’re willing to jeopardize a major trade network for our city, our state and our region,” he said.


John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington State Farm Bureau, called the ballot measure a direct threat to the agriculture industry, the state’s second largest industry behind aerospace.

“Rail is the lifeblood of our state and for our region. This is a serious threat to our farmers, growers, ranchers, manufacturers and exporters who depend on rail to move through Spokane,” said Stuhlmiller. “If voters ultimately approve this measure in the fall there will be legal repercussions and that could affect the shipment of other materials, not just coal and oil. I’m hopeful people will see the greater value of the railroads and how essential they are to today’s way of life.”

These patchwork, selective efforts to disrupt trade threaten our state economy. The double standard on rail is simply another attempt to bend regulatory processes to advance other agendas. Another example can be seen in the regulatory approaches to the Millennium Bulk Terminals and Vancouver Energy projects. With respect to the Vancouver Energy project, the Association of Washington Business recently wrote

AWB and a strong turnout of union members came to support the Vancouver Energy project during an air quality permit hearing last week. Wearing orange shirts, the workers said the jobs that would come with building and operating the facility would be a welcome addition to their community…

Mary Catherine McAleer, AWB government affairs director for environment and climate policy, testified in support of the Vancouver Energy Project. The company is committed to operating in a safe and environmentally responsible way, she said, and the draft air quality permit will help them do that.

“In addition to the federal regulations, Washington is known to have some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country, and that’s good, because properly administered they help us maintain a great quality of life and environment,” McAleer said. “This air permit is an example of how that works best. It’s tough, certain and fair, and the projected results –– no violation of ambient air quality or emissions standards –– are achievable.”

Our state continues to be a study in economic contrast, with the metro Puget Sound region thriving while much of the rest of the state struggles. A selective approach to regulation will exacerbate the current divide; increasing trade and commodity exports will extend economic opportunity to communities across the state.