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There is a lot of money on the table, and proponents are ramping up their ground game in addition to spending over a million dollars on advertising in the region.
The big winners would be the giant firms building and servicing the terminal. Peabody Coal, the nation’s largest coal company, will ship 24 million tons of coal a year when the terminal opens and increase that to 48 million at buildout. SSA Marine of Seattle, a large international terminal operator 49 percent owned by a Goldman Sachs affiliate, will build and operate the terminal. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway gets the lucrative hauling business.
Local construction workers stand to gain from a two-year construction period that SSA Marine says will bring 4,400 jobs; construction unions, and longshoremen who would staff the terminal, are among the project’s biggest backers. At buildout, 213 permanent jobs are projected in SSA Marine’s applications, with about the same number added for rail and merchant-ship workers, tugboat operators and others associated with the terminal. Most of these jobs would likely not go to locals, however. Another 821 “indirect” jobs are predicted, at area groceries, restaurants, casinos, hardware stores, etc. Estimates are from a study commissioned by SSA Marine by Martin Associates, a national firm specializing in marine industries.
Project supporters used the forum as a platform to make their views on jobs known, and to assure agency representatives that they — the people closest to the site — were not concerned about issues raised by what some called “fearmongers” and “alarmists” in the opposition camp. The speakers stressed the community benefits of industries already located on Cherry Point, the industrial site where Gateway Pacific would be built. “Good neighbors,” was Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen’s description. Certainly, they have been major funders of public services in the state’s northwestern corner.
The small school districts of Blaine and Ferndale are heavily financed by Cherry Point industries. With the Gateway Pacific Terminal, the districts would gain funds from four of the top five biggest properties in Whatcom County, including the BP and Tosco refineries and Alumet aluminum plant. Ferndale School District would receive about $4.4 million when the terminal is built out, and Blaine School District would receive $808,780, according to an analysis compiled for SSA Marine by FCS Group, a Redmond-based economic consulting firm. The other major impact is to eight Whatcom County funds, which would receive $1.8 million; the largest beneficiary is the county road fund. State of Washington property tax income would be $1.7 million. The FCS report and the Martin report are available here.
Bellingham, where major negative impacts of the coal-train traffic would occur, receives no property taxes from Cherry Point industries for either the city or its school district.
Because school districts are financed by a combination of levies and bonds, it is difficult to predict impact on an individual residence in the Ferndale or Blaine school districts. FCS notes that taxes on residential property may be reduced because the tax burden would be spread out over a larger tax base with the addition of the terminal.
Critics of the terminal do not deny the significance of a $665 million project in the county, but they have called for an independent review of SSA’s economic data as part of the environmental review of the project. A study in November 2011 by Public Financial Management, a national consultant to local governments, stated that SSA had not provided the additional material that would have aided in its study. The study, commissioned by CommunityWise Bellingham, raised several issues where jobs could be lost as a result of the project, primarily from increased rail traffic in Bellingham. The study is available here.
A major problem for Public Financial Management and others attempting to assess the net impact of a project like Gateway Pacific is that it is extraordinarily difficult to measure a negative — that is, potential loss of jobs or potential fiscal impacts to a community, other than the considerable cost of building overpasses and controlled crossings to deal with added rail traffic.
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