Port hints at making public comment on Gateway terminal

Throughout the “scoping” process for the environmental study on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, the commissioners at the Port of Bellingham have stayed silent, at least publicly.

But toward the end of the commission’s first meeting of 2013, on Tuesday, Jan. 8, Commissioner Michael McAuley broached the topic, asking whether the elected board should submit an official comment, or otherwise issue a statement, before the public-comment period of the scoping process ends on Jan. 21.

“I think there’s still unanswered questions that I think we should address, if necessary,” McAuley said, during a brief moment at the end of the meeting reserved for discussions on new port business or matters unrelated to topics listed on the meeting’s agenda.

As he spoke, McAuley mentioned previous comments made by commissioners at the Port of Skagit, who have said they cannot support the Gateway project unless given assurance that potential negative impacts of the expected increase in rail traffic from the terminal’s operation would be carefully addressed.

In a letter initially sent to Gov. Christine Gregoire on Sept. 13, 2011, then later submitted as a public comment in the scoping process on Nov. 12, 2012, Port of Skagit commissioners Kevin Ware, Jerry Kaufman (who was replaced by Steve Omdal in 2011) and Bill Shuler wrote:

“As a port we generally support projects such as this which have economic importance regionally and nationally. Also as a port, we do not consider it our role to become involved in the debate over many of the other non-economic issues (both pro and con) this project might entail. Our purpose is local economic development leading to the creation of good family wage jobs in our community. Let there be no doubt, the Gateway project as currently proposed will have a very significant negative impact on our local economy.”

“Specifically, a great deal of the job creating economic activity in our community is dependent upon ready east/west traffic movement of cars and trucks. There are some eight ‘at grade’ rail crossings that currently block local business related traffic when trains pass through. Even the most cursory review of the Gateway proposal shows that the additional trains required to supply the new terminal with coal will further obstruct traffic, and have a negative impact on economic development in our community leading to a net loss of jobs. This problem could be at least partially solved by the construction of overpasses at certain key locations.”

“The Port of Skagit’s support for this project is dependent upon solutions for at least the traffic issue being carefully studied, with the required funds to solve the problem being incorporated into the budget of the Gateway project itself, rather than taken from Port of Skagit taxpayers.”

“The notion of ‘he who benefits pays’ is considered fundamentally fair in America, and we believe it is fully applicable to the Gateway project’s effect on our community.”

In Bellingham, opponents of the Gateway terminal have said increased rail traffic along the city’s waterfront could block access to bayside parks and impede redevelopment of the former Georgia-Pacific mill site.

Thumbs up, or down

Rob Fix, the port’s executive director, said port staff has considered submitting comments in the public scoping process. But after seeing comments submitted by officials with the city of Bellingham, port staff felt their comments would have reflected essentially the same thing, Fix said.

“We didn’t see a need to pile on,” Fix said.

In a previous interview with the Bellingham Business Journal, Fix said he planned to wait until the environmental study on the terminal is completed before deciding his position on the project. Yet he also said if the study leaves unanswered questions on the terminal’s potential positive or negative impacts, he might choose to stay neutral.

The study, known as an environmental impact statement, will be completed by officials from Whatcom County, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Through the study’s scoping process, which opened its public-comment period back in September 2012, the three agencies will determine which factors related to the proposed terminal will be analyzed, and to what extent they will play a role in the final environmental statement.

During the commission meeting, Michael McAuley said he believes the increase in train traffic could impact activity on Bellingham’s waterfront. He said he thought it would be a good idea for the port to consider making a public comment on the terminal from an economic standpoint, similar to the comments made by the Port of Skagit.

If port officials decide they do want to submit a public comment in the scoping process, they would have to do so before the Jan. 21 deadline.

Also, since the commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 22, should commissioners want to discuss their comments in a public forum, the port would need to schedule a special commission meeting.

After listening to McAuley’s suggestions, Commissioner Scott Walker said he was unsure what type of information McAuley would want such a statement from the port to contain.

McAuley said any statement or comment from the port on the proposed terminal’s impact on economic development should be factually sound. He mentioned previous reports from local press and local interest groups that covered potential impacts to property values near rail tracks and possible tax benefits from the terminal’s construction and operation.

Fix said he wasn’t sure port staff had the expertise to issue definitive reports on potential economic effects, either positive or negative, related to the terminal.

McAuley said he hoped his fellow commissioners would consider making a public comment on the Gateway terminal at some point in the future.

“I would hope that we could remain open to making a statement about the project,” he said.

Additional commission notes

– Commissioner Jim Jorgensen was selected to serve as the commission’s president for 2013. The three commissioners voted on his selection during their first meeting of the year, also selecting Commissioner Michael McAuley to serve as vice president, and Commissioner Scott Walker to serve a secretary. Walker served as president in 2012.

– Commissioners also voted to continue holding their regular meetings at 3 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Meetings are held in the conference room at the port’s Harbor Center Building, located at 1801 Roeder Ave. in Bellingham.

Contact Evan Marczynski at evan@bbjtoday.com or call 360-647-8805. 

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