House transportation bill ignores county’s needs

Shari Phiel, April 14, 2015, The Daily News

A House committee narrowly rejected a plan to finance the Industrial Way/Oregon Way rail corridor improvements, as the project got mired in opposition to a West Longview coal export terminal.


Tuesday night’s action does not kill the area’s hope for funding the key transportation project, but it will make its passage more difficult.


The Senate transportation plan sets aside $85 million for the rail corridor improvements. But the House plan includes no money for the project.


State Reps. Dean Takko, D-Longview, and Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, worked to change that, offering an amendment to match the Senate’s support for the rail project. But the House Transportation Committee voted it down, 13-12.


“We’ve known all along it’s a tough sell,” Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber said Tuesday.


What seems to be making the project hard for some lawmakers – right or wrong – is its apparent tie to the Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export terminal project West of Longview.


“For the governor and his office – they have blinders on – this is coal project. For those who are focused on Puget Sound, they’re taking their lead from him,” Weber said.

Studies show that improvements of the rail corridor from the BNSF main tracks to Barlow Point are needed to handle increased rail and vehicular traffic and encourage economic expansion. A locally developed rail plan calls for more than $150 million in improvements, such as an overpass at the busy Oregon Way/Industrial Way intersection.


But environmental groups say the rail corridor improvements are being championed solely to benefit the proposed coal export terminal, which will require eight round-trips daily to the site of the former Reynolds Metals Co. aluminum plant.


Weber says that’s simply not true.


“It’s just not about a particular proposal. It is frustrating,” Weber said, adding the rail corridor improvements were studied and planned years before plans for 44-million ton coal export dock were announced.


Port of Longview representative Ashley Helenberg said the rail corridor improvements are important to the port’s future and are necessary for the development of its Barlow Point property.


“We’ve been working on this project for decades, long before coal was ever proposed here,” Helenberg said.


Weber, along with Helenberg and Scott Walstra from the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, traveled to Olympia in March to testify in support of the rail corridor project.


Even though the amendment failed to pass, Takko said he would keep trying.


There are two options: One, getting the whole House to accept the $85 million amendment; two, having it included when House and Senate negotiators meet to iron out differences between their two transportation packages.


“I think in the end we’ll be able to get it because we keep talking in our transportation committee about freight mobility, access to our ports. And if there’s a project that fits the criteria, this is one,” Takko said.


Takko said he thinks there’s enough support in the House to get the amendment passed but knows there is still some hesitation about what he says is the perceived connection to the Millennium project.


“We expect to continue to work with our partners and advocating that it be put back in for the final bill,” Helenberg said by phone Tuesday. “This won’t be the last opportunity to fight for it.”


Along with the Industrial Way/Oregon Way project funding, other projects like the $900,000 proposed by the Senate plan for south Kelso rail crossing also disappeared. Not having those projects in the bill will make it difficult for local legislators to support.


“Without the large projects, like (Industrial Way/Oregon Way), there’s no way I could vote for this on the floor,” Blake said.


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