June 08, 2014, The Daily News
We found Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who visited Longview last week, to be a forceful and persuasive advocate for the interests of his state, which he freely admits draws more than 70 percent of its income from the mining of coal and the extraction of other minerals and fossil fuels.
While Mead’s focus was doing some fact-finding and promotional work on behalf of Millennium Bunk Terminals’ proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River just to the west of the Port of Longview, he made one point we think warrants additional emphasis.
When Mead met with The Daily News’ Editorial Board, the topic turned to improving and expanding rail service to the waterfront, a hurdle that we feel needs to be cleared before the region’s infrastructure could support the additional rail traffic generated by coal trains without serious inconvenience to the public or existing riverfront businesses.
“You’re going to need to do that anyway, aren’t you?” Mead asked the Ed Board. “You’re not going to realize the full potential of your port without it.”
It’s an excellent point and we assume the Governor made it in his private sessions with regional business and political leaders as well as with us.
Like many port cities, Longview seems to be in process of discovering that what constituted “adequate” rail service 20 or 30 years ago has become extremely limiting today. While many American ports now find themselves in the position of not being able to expand due to rail bottlenecks, we don’t feel Longview is locked into that category.
The problem, as Mead noted, is paying for these expensive improvements. Railroad companies don’t undertake this sort of major project “on spec” and haven’t promised much in the way of a financial contribution.
In one sense, this is the only critical link between rail expansion and the coal terminal. If assured of the volume and the profits the terminal would bring, the rail companies might be more willing to share in the costs.
Coal, however, isn’t the only commodity that could potentially be handled along the river that would produce a significant increase in rail traffic and would all but demand better rail access. While the debate on the coal terminal is ongoing, we’d urge that the issue of rail access not be tied directly to the coal project.
It’s something we need and ought to be pursuing, whether or not the terminal is built.
Mead, who’s completing his first four-year term and will be seeking a second this fall, isn’t unaware that assembling some kind of public/private initiative to improve rail service won’t be accomplished without difficulty and compromise.
“When you get to that point, though,” he said, “you’re dealing with an issue that can be studied and discussed. It’s a problem that’s been solved in other places. It could be done here.”
We’d like to see it happen, as would most of the businesses now operating along the river. We’ve always maintained that port activity is the key to our region’s economic future — just as it’s been the key to past periods of prosperity. With the rail issue put to the side, we may discover commercial opportunities on the river that aren’t apparent today.
It shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a “coal thing.” If it could be done, the entire region would benefit — with or without the coal.