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Coal fight may cost us jobs, investment

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By Chris Strow
Across the country, exports and infrastructure spending are big issues as of late. Our own Gov. Inslee rightly emphasized during his campaign that investing in transportation infrastructure creates needed construction jobs today, lays the foundation for job growth tomorrow and keeps our economy competitive globally, by promoting exports of U.S. products. President Obama's campaign likewise committed to grow infrastructure spending and double exports by 2015.
Those are smart policies that enjoy bipartisan support. According to the Federal Reserve, for every dollar invested in infrastructure, like highways, the economy sees two dollars in growth. And last year's record trade numbers showed Washington's economy is getting back on track thanks to exports.
And yet locally, the debate over bulk export terminals for coal and other commodities -- one of the largest infrastructure and export investments in decades -- has become a heated political debate.
Trade, labor and agriculture interests rightly see in the five proposed terminals an opportunity to expand U.S. trade, job creation and new state tax revenue. At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in private infrastructure investment, thousands of jobs and private investment in our transportation infrastructure that would have wider benefits for the regional, trade-based economy.
Opponents of the projects want to dramatically expand the already rigorous environmental review process for the facilities, as a bureaucratic method of shutting them down or delaying investments indefinitely.
What should be an individualized examination of each project site -- the current approach -- will become a collective, region-wide review of unrelated facilities. And if successful, such broad reviews could be used to slow numerous public and private investments, from new factories to new airports or other transportation facilities.
If the terminals are halted through bureaucratic delays, the shift in Washington's business environment would be enormous. Washington's rail infrastructure is essential to trade growth in the state. The state's rail transportation board has identified $2 billion in investment needs for our railroads over the next 10 years.
Given the current pressures on federal, state, and local budgets, government's ability to finance ambitious infrastructure investments is limited. And railroads already spend over $100 million dollars annually on capital investments in Washington. To continue to grow the infrastructure that supports our trade economy, we need alternative approaches to funding, including new private investment opportunities.
Neither public nor private infrastructure spending is of any value if the potential investments become political punching bags. Unfortunately, that's exactly what is happening with the proposed bulk commodity terminals.
The benefits of trade, so well-known in our state, are inexplicably forgotten in the case of these terminals. Mayor McGinn of Seattle has suggested that increased trade will cost his city white collar and tech jobs. This, from the city where Starbucks resides in the heart of the industrial port zone. And Gov. Inslee recently opined that supplying affordable energy to Asia through these facilities would somehow hurt manufacturers like Boeing. No matter that the largest export market for Washington goods, and the largest market for air passenger growth in the world, is Asia.
We can't prioritize infrastructure investment and exports while also allowing the regulatory approval process be used as roadblocks for projects that have played by the rules.
Chris Strow is a former state representative (10th District), a former aide to Congressman Jack Metcalf, and has worked in senior positions for the Puget Sound Regional Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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