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GUEST OPINION: The bad economics of coal trains

The projects proposed by Amber Energy (coal barges) and Kinder Morgan (coal trains) must be analyzed separately because they have little in common for Columbia County. The coal-barging project will generate employment in Columbia County with no ground transportation issues. Coal trains lead to huge transportation issues and no net economic development.

Coal trains do not create significant jobs

The coal train project would generate jobs in the county, but the minimal number of jobs created pales compared to the cost of coal trains. The reason for this is the coal train jobs will bring into the county up to 2,000 rail coal cars daily, cutting the county’s cities in half. This will create transportation problems, a reduction in economic development, a net loss in jobs, reduction in property values, reduction in property taxes from future development and health and safety issues.

It should also be kept in mind that many of the jobs will go to out-of-county residents, yet the costs of the coal trains will be born by county residents and property owners.

When articles or advertisements talk about the great economic benefits of coal trains, there are three common distortions: First, the job creation estimates are not just for Columbia County and include temporary construction jobs; second, they do not take into account the negative effects coal trains will have on current Columbia County businesses or on future economic growth; third, they lump coal trains and coal barges together, thus exaggerating the benefits of coal trains.

Coal trains hinder transportation, which is key to economic development

Good transportation is a major key to economic development. If a new or existing business knows that 2,000 coal cars and regular rail traffic is traveling through an area daily, it gives that business cause to go elsewhere. Companies can choose where they locate their facilities; they do not need to locate, expand or even remain in Columbia County. The coal trains give businesses a transportation problem, which they can solve by going elsewhere.

For south Columbia County, most of the industrial land is located on the east side of Highway 30. The coal trains will impede access to Highway 30 and increase transportation costs for businesses. South county’s close proximity to Portland metro is one of the main selling points for both businesses and families to locate here. Coal trains will impede movement by commuters, consumers and businesses alike, reducing economic activity due to congestion, real or perceived.

Coal dust harms economics

For some companies, any potential for coal dust, real or imagined, is a deal-breaker. When Portland General Electric said “no” to a coal rail terminal being located next to them, they cited coal dust as a reason. PGE handles coal at its power plant in Eastern Oregon, so its officials know what coal trains mean and they do not want to be near it.

Many schools in Columbia County are within 750 feet of the railroad tracks, so the coal becomes a serious concern for parents not wanting their children playing a few hundred feet from coal trains and any potential health risks, real or imagined. Coal trains can prevent middle-to-high income people from locating or remaining in Columbia County. These people can choose where they live and do not want their children in school a few hundred feet from coal trains.

Small businesses will close

Most of the employment in the Port of St. Helens district is close to the railroad tracks. Many small businesses, by their nature, are marginal. Any transportation issues, real or perceived, will keep customers away and result in business loss. For some businesses, a small loss of business could reduce profits enough to close the business, and end employment.

Coal train stigma harms economics

The social and economic stigma of coal trains will reduce population growth. Without population growth, there is no need for construction, which means there will not be construction jobs or tax revenue created by new construction. Without more population, there will be less service-based businesses locating in Columbia County, again reducing employment.

As noticed around the country, people see coal trains as a reduction in quality of life. Perceived quality of life has a huge economic impact on business, ascetics, community and the environment. Therefore, the coal train stigma matters economically.

Columbia County investment reconsidered

If the coal train project moves forward, I, as well as others I’ve spoken with, will reconsider investing in Columbia County. I have more than 20 commercial units in Columbia County and undeveloped land, some of which is zoned industrial. I have continued to invest in Columbia County even during the economic downturn because I have believed, until now, Columbia County has a bright future.

If the coal trains move ahead, it will mean this county’s political leadership does not understand how to create sustainable economic growth. Coal trains will have a large negative impact on property values and act as a tax on all property owners on the Highway 30 corridor.

The exact number of coal rail cars is unknown. The contract between Kinder Morgan and the Port has no limits on the number of rail coal cars per day and there are no limits on times of day, so impacts on rush-hour traffic could be extreme.

Please contact the Port of St. Helens to let its commissioners know you do not want coal trains and their negative economic impact in your county. They have the power to stop it.

Brian Rosenthal is a Scappoose land investor