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.

Oregon Way rail crossing

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.

The Washington State Senate wants to spend $85 million for the benefit of high-flying international coal investors.
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.

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.

March 30, 2015