Rep. Liz Pike and Environment Committee Chairman
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon celebrate House passage of House Bill 1504.
Let’s put our short-line rail roads to work, bringing new jobs to our communities!
For the past five years, I’ve been working hard on several measures to reform our state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). Perseverance has finally paid off. Last week, I worked across party lines to get House Bill 1504 passed off the House floor. There is more work to be done to advance the bill out of the Senate, and onto the governor’s desk.
House Bill 1504 is a jobs measure for Washington! The legislation would allow land adjacent to short-line railroads currently zoned for, but underutilized as agriculture and other natural resources, to be converted to jobs, producing light industrial and manufacturing sites. The bill would accomplish this by adding “freight rail” dependent uses and “short-line railroads” to definitions within the GMA.
Since 2015, I’ve worked with numerous stakeholders in our county on this important land-use reform. This bill has been a priority for the House Republican Caucus for the past two sessions and continues to be so today.
To put this critical reform into perspective, there are some important facts to know about the potential for new jobs in our region if House Bill 1504 is signed into law.
We are fortunate to have the 33-mile Chelatchie Prairie short-line railroad which runs diagonally through our county. During the last few years, executives from the Clark County Economic Development Council have turned away four major companies seeking to locate here. Each of these companies had two major requirements: the need for direct access to a short-line railroad in order to get their goods to market, and a minimum parcel size of 100 acres. One firm sought to bring 6,500 new, full-time manufacturing jobs to Southwest Washington. Three other new manufacturing companies requiring rail access were poised to bring a combined total of an additional 850 full-time jobs. Due to existing limitations within GMA, we were forced to turn these new jobs away. This left me no choice, but to spring into action to fix it.
Our region is blessed to have all the necessary ingredients to make thousands of new jobs a reality. Clark County has rail adjacent parcels with willing sellers and willing buyers. We have the Chelatchie Prairie short-line railroad to provide the necessary connectivity to class 1 railroads, including BNSF and Union Pacific. Passing House Bill 1504 into law would put our Chelatchie Prairie railroad to work for us, connecting our regional farmers, timber producers and manufacturing facilities to global markets through our state’s mainline transcontinental rail networks.
This bill is particularly significant to residents in the 18th District. According to Clark County Fire District 3, most of the residents of this district drive to work in Portland each day. Statistics also indicate that 92 percent of the labor force in Battle Ground works in either Portland or Vancouver. This stark reality creates problems with traffic, infrastructure, and overall quality of life. Additionally, it limits our ability to provide adequate funding for our public schools and emergency services, and puts an unfair tax burden on residents.
Everyone agrees our area desperately needs more employment opportunities for citizens in Clark County. I hear from many of the 80,000 local residents who are forced to commute to Oregon to earn a living wage. As elected officials, we should be doing everything possible to foster a vibrant economy with plentiful job opportunities right here.
Getting GMA reform bills passed into law has proven to be challenging in the past. However, having served on the House Environment Committee for the past four years, I have cultivated a successful and bipartisan working relationship with Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, who chairs this committee. I was willing to work hard and negotiate in good faith with Chair Fitzgibbon to identify compromises to the original bill to gain support from the House majority party. In Olympia, this is critical to advance meaningful policy changes. With our respective and agreed-upon amendments, we got the bill voted out of committee with unanimous support, and subsequently off the House floor with an 83-14 vote. This is significant, given our current state of divided government.
Amendments included narrowing the bill to apply to short lines in Clark, Yakima and Spokane counties. I would have preferred this policy be applied to all 23 short-line railroads in Washington. However, incremental change to bring new jobs to three rural counties is a good start.
Another amendment we passed directs the Washington State Department of Commerce to submit a report to the Legislature in 2022 that describes job gains, tax impacts and impacts to resource lands resulting from the revised GMA policy. This amendment will allow us to make the case to expand the bill to include additional short-line railroads across Washington in future legislative sessions. Language was also added to require buffers to preserve the rural character of nearby farmland.
It’s imperative to recognize freight rail-served land as a type of resource land within GMA so that we can put our short lines to work in our community, creating long-term, sustainable jobs for a vibrant local economy. Passage of this bill would signify our state’s commitment to short-line railroads in Washington and the huge economic benefits they provide.
Lastly, we would never be able to recreate our network of short-line railroads across the state. Land acquisition costs and our burdensome environmental and regulatory climate would make it virtually impossible. With this in mind, the Washington Legislature must act now to protect these important rail connectors, work with local governments to bring them up to modern standards, and properly maintain them. In doing so, thousands of new living-wage jobs will follow.
I was honored to host a visit to the state Capitol of Mr. Robin Crocker’s students from River Homelink School in Battle Ground.
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President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would halt transit grants not yet executed and pull federal grant funding on seven light-rail transit projects in Puget Sound, putting them in financial jeopardy. Could it be because light rail is a political ideology and not a transportation solution?
Read the story here.
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