First Wyoming, now Washington: the state Senate has endorsed an $85 million handout to the coal industry, in the form of a rail project whose sole identifiable beneficiary is the proposed and highly controversial Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export project in Longview, Washington.
The rail crossing project, innocuously labeled in the legislative record as the “SR 432 Longview Grade Crossing,” would build a massive vehicle overpass over a rail line near the banks of the Columbia in Longview, Washington. In the map below, the rail rail line is in blue. The project would lift the entire Oregon Way and Industrial Way intersection, including the rail crossings circled in red, to let trains pass underneath.
The county projects rapid growth in train traffic at these rail crossings through 2035. But nearly three quarters of that projected growth is for the Millennium terminal. The remaining quarter would go to Barlow Point to the west of Millennium—an undeveloped site that, at present, has no known prospects for a tenant.
That means that the only known project that could boost traffic delays at Oregon Way and Industrial Way is the Millennium Bulk Terminals, a project whose principal proponent is wholly owned by a private equity fund based in the Cayman Islands.
That’s right, the Washington State Senate wants to spend $85 million in scarce transportation dollars, primarily for the benefit of high-flying international investors.The Washington State Senate wants to spend $85 million for the benefit of high-flying international coal investors.
To make matters worse, this particular rail crossing project is just a down payment on a much larger set of transportation upgrades that the state would have to build to make Millennium viable. All told, the projects could cost more than $200 million. And the Senate is using a time-honored tactic: by finishing the last and least necessary segment first, they build the case for spending even more money to “complete” what they’ve started. (Paging the North Spokane Freeway!)
What makes the Senate’s spending priorities especially foolish is that the Millennium project might never be built. Millennium still faces massive hurdles: it doesn’t have a permit yet; the community opposition is fierce; the legal tools for stopping the project abound; and worst of all, the Pacific coal market is in the middle of a precipitous downturn. China’s sinking demand has brought international prices to multi-year lows, US coal exporters are hemorrhaging money, and a similar coal terminal project in BC is in financial freefall. So even if the project does manage to obtain a permit, it’s not clear that anyone will pony up the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build it.
In short, the Washington Senate may have just voted to commit nearly $100 million to help international investors pursue an environmentally risky coal export project that may never actually see the light of day.
To my mind, it’s just one of a long string of irresponsible measures in the Senate transportation package…a bill so misguided that the House should simply throw it away and start over.
Hat tip and research credit to Brett VandenHeuvel at Columbia Riverkeeper.
This is outrageous! You can be sure many of us will be looking at the voting roster to see who sold us out! AND will not forget next election day!
Sadly, Clark, your selection of relevant data leaves out the fact that DOT first identified the traffic congestion problem along this freight mobility corridor in 1968. Only depression-era economic stagnation and natural disasters have bought us time to deal with this “kink” in our local economy. There is the full-weight of Gov. Inlee’s office interfering with the Millennium permitting process, so there is absolutely no guarantee the coal terminal will be ever be built. But the congestion will continue to be a drag on our economy. It must be resolved. Cowlitz County is facing increasing unemployment and poverty. Your map neglects to show the port’s future expansion includes Barlow Point. Transporting goods is our economic future, but if we can’t solve the congestion problem, we won’t be able “to do better” when it comes to employment. Perhaps you favor more government assistance to our underemployed and impoverished, rather than family-wage jobs. Sadly elitist!
I understand your concern. But the numbers that the county used to justify a massive expansion of train capacity past Oregon Way are largely based on assumptions about coal train traffic. If the delays caused by 14 mile-long coal trains per day operating at low speeds weren’t such a pressing issue, the improvements now labeled “tier 2” might well be a higher priority…and the process likely would have resulted in a project that focused more clearly on improving access to Berth 4 and the industrial areas to the east of Oregon Way.
But I do hear you on family wage jobs in Longview. Yet at this point, with the Asian coal markets as depressed as they are, I’m afraid that Millennium would remain largely unused, even if it were built. If that happens, the Oregon Way project could become a “stranded asset”—and we could wind up wishing that the transportation money had been spent to improve transportation in the other parts of Longview’s industrial areas.
I am going to jump in here on the charge that “Your map neglects to show the port’s future expansion includes Barlow Point.”
I may be missing something, but the map clearly shows Barlow Point. To me, it looks pretty undeveloped, whatever the Port’s future intentions.
As to the “elitist” charge, to me it seems more elitist to provide socialism so an allegedly “private enterprise” can profit from polluting and increasing global warming’s dangers to human society. I would much rather see socialism for the 99%, than for corporations with no heart or soul.
I so appreciate the work that the Sightline Institute does in blowing the whistle on boondoggles like this, and shining a light on the crimes of the fossil fuel industry. Just a quibble with the framing of this. What is happening here has nothing to do with “socialism” — which is about greater economic equality and democracy, not gifts from the public to the wealthy. I get the point, but let’s find another label for what’s going on, as “socialism” is not a synonym for “give-away.” Again, all this is in the context of great admiration and appreciation for all Sightline does to educate us.
Thanks Bill. I wholeheartdly agree with the kudos to Sightline. And would ask that Clark and other contributors avoid using the term socialism when really we’re talking about governmental (i.e. our tax dollars) support of corporate capitalism.
You’re exactly correct, Bill. Point taken! The “socialism” label is a jab at the conservative-controlled Senate that passed this bill: folks who cry “socialism” and “government picking winners and losers” when it’s spending they don’t like, but are happy to back spending when it’s for something they do like.
But really, the issue that I’m seeing again and again—in Wyoming, in Washington, in BC, in Montana—is that there are state and provincial officials who favor cutting social benefits, but at the same time happily hand out financial favors to coal companies. It’s really corporate welfare rather than socialism per se. I just thought that it would sting them more to be called socialists, because they’re probably perfectly happy to be called pro-big-corporation.
All that said, I do want to re-emphasize something I said in another comment on this post: I’m not opposed to transportation spending that makes sense; and I’m not opposed to a working waterfront in Longview. And I recognize that there are arguments that this project could have benefits for tenants besides Millennium. It’s just that this project is of a scale and scope that specifically accommodates Millennium’s expected rail traffic — and there’s really no other known beneficiary west of Oregon Way.
Only in America do we practice socialism with no strings attached. Lacking strings helps it look like something else. We constantly subsidize business with no expectation of any return at all, and they still mange to disappoint us. Yeah, call it business as normal, or kleptocracy.
The valid quibble here in the comments is the timeline for building these things. It was planned long before coal had anything to do with it. I have similar issues with TX DOT with a yield sign on an old highway. They can’t change the sign without tearing the whole interchange down. It’s slated, but a long way off. In the meantime, find some other way to get where you’re going or expect to die at that yield sign. It’s nuts the timeframes on these thing.
This is what happens when uninformed voters elect Republicans for public office. Business profits over all else.
I am a Registered Nurse and really find it shocking that Senators are giving a gift to these Millionaires , the Corporations claim to be people, right? They are at the end of dirty energy “rush” and plan to sell every last drop of crude overseas and get every single piece of coal sold cheaply with no interest in human, health or safety, or how ugly the whole area will be. once they are done with us. Of course, if this were safe, asthma rates would not be soaring, and Physicians for Social Responsibility would cheer, not spread the alarm.
Brian Setzler, CPA
Can you breakdown the Democrat and Republican support for this spending bill?
Thank you for your interest in Sightline’s work, and for commenting. But there are some reasons that Sightline might not be able to answer your question. For one, my understanding is that under their Charter they are not allowed to get involved in partisan politics.
In addition, if I am reading Clark’s post correcting, his embedded link to the legislative record leads to a document with multiple transportation projects, and the SR 432 Longview grade crossing is found on page 18 of 20; the un-embedded link is the following: http://leap.leg.wa.gov/leap/Budget/Detail/2015/STLEAPDoc2015NL-1_0227.pdf
So my guess, and I am speaking only for myself, is that although Senators can offer amendments, the WA Senate vote was for the entire package, which includes transportation projects all over the state. And one person’s “earmark” may be another person’s “job-creating opportunity”. So breaking out the vote by party may not necessarily reflect a Senator’s position on the SR432 Crossing, or any other single project.
I found on the web one article on the proposed legislation, with comments from Cowlitz County officials who supported the project, along with the comments of a “green coalition” at the bottom on the entire Senate transportation package, link at: http://tdn.com/news/local/state-senate-seeks-million-for-longview-s-oregon-way-sr/article_d05aabcc-b4c6-11e4-924f-3f5a1a9e24e2.html
And as Clark notes at the end of his post, the Bill can be rewritten in the WA House, and the Governor always has veto power.
In addition, I decided to follow up on my own comment above, and look for a map that does show the Port’s expansion plans for Port Barlow. I found it on the Port’s own web pages, the winning consultants’ design, at
The plan does include a cold storage/warehouse building with solar panels on top [page 7 in the link above]. Sounds pretty neat to me, and a project that can merge jobs with green energy. But I have to wonder, if Millenium Coal terminal is next door, how often workers will have to clear coal dust off the panels so they will work, and how much coal dust will end up in the Columbia River, much less in the lungs of children and other living things, in accordance with Dorothea’s comment above warning of human health effects.
Enough opining, and my apologies in advance for rambling on to Sightline’s “long-suffering editors,” to quote a public radio personality.