Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell want to “level the playing field,” and for good reason. Cargo containers off-loaded at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are subject to something called the Harbor Maintenance Tax. Not so, containers with the same kind of stuff, arriving in British Columbia and shipped to destinations in the United States. Our ports are at a distinct financial disadvantage due to misplaced federal taxation, and that’s wrong. Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani estimated about 10,000 jobs are at risk from diversion of trade to Canada, said The Seattle Times.
Puget Sound ports are our state’s economic entry point and lifeline, so this should concern all of us. We are, as we are often reminded, one of the most trade-dependent states in the nation. Of course, the senators should seek a level playing field. Exports and imports mean wealth, income, jobs and eventually tax revenue. They will introduce a bill to shift the tax to cover containers shipped through foreign ports to destinations in the United States. That would put Prince Rupert, B.C., on an equal footing with Seattle and Tacoma.
This all assumes the more trade the better. The more goods moving in and out of our ports, the better off we are economically. This makes perfect sense if you stop at night and listen to the rattle and roar of double-decked long-haul freight trains passing through Wenatchee or see refrigerated containers packed with fruit making their way out of town to the markets of the world. The Washington Research Council in a just-released paper on trade impacts cites a 2009 study that said imports and exports from the Port of Seattle directly support 12,428 jobs and $637 million in wages; Port of Tacoma, 10,978 jobs, most right at the terminal, with wages around $496 million. Indirectly, port activity across the state supports 35,000 jobs, the Research Council estimates.
Part of the trouble recently, is that many of our political leaders are striving to create the impression this kind of economic activity and the transport of goods and commodities is somehow wrong and harmful. They don’t mean it, I hope. They are trying to raise arguments against the export of coal from massive proposed terminals near Bellingham and Longview, and in doing so imply that the transport of goods by rail, as the coal would be, will be economically and environmentally detrimental.
Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn released a study last week, after a public records request by the Seattle Times, that analyzes the potential economic impact of coal train shipments to the proposed bulk terminal near Bellingham. The report says traffic blockage at key rail crossings through Seattle could double with a “quantifiable economic impact from anticipated congestion” of up to $455,000 per year for drivers and employers. In addition, trains “aggravate tourism and recreation businesses,” rattle hotels, reduce property values by hundreds of millions and add to the cost of emergency services.
These are problems that apply to coal trains, or trains carrying anything else, of which there are many moving through Seattle already. The city study notes there are 30 trains a day through Seattle’s North Waterfront district and up to 80 through SODO. Some of these, perhaps two or three a day, are coal trains more than a mile long, headed to British Columbia. Others, the report states, are long-haul trains filled with goods and commodities, as long or longer than the coal trains. Presumably, all these trains contribute to traffic congestion, with a quantifiable economic impact, which the coal train opponents imply will become unbearable. If the Bellingham terminal is built, train traffic could increase to slightly more than the 2006 peak, when our economy was humming happily, said BNSF
There are good reasons to worry about the wisdom of exporting coal. Burning coal is a problem, wherever it comes from. But don’t let anti-coal zeal become a general hostility to the movement of goods through our cities. That’s economically self-defeating. The more trains, the more trucks, the better, and keep the playing field level.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.