Spokane residents will be tasked with voting on the future of the city’s rail traffic Tuesday.
Proposition 2 on this year’s ballot would amend Spokane’s Municipal Code and make it illegal for rail cars with uncontained coal and certain types of oil to be shipped through downtown Spokane or within 2,000 feet of any schools, hospitals or the Spokane River. If the proposal passes, entities that break this law would face a civil fine.
The debate over Proposition 2 has divided much of Spokane, including the city’s first responders. As Spokane Firefighters have endorsed the proposal, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has strongly opposed it.
Members of both campaigns hope Gonzaga students understand the importance of Proposition 2 and why it should matter to them.
Kyle Madsen, a Gonzaga law student and advocate for Proposition 2, believes GU students eligible to vote locally should care about this issue and consider a “Yes” vote, because of the possible consequences.
“The trains run on just the other side of the river,” Madsen said. “You know, if all of a sudden there is a river of flaming oil flowing outside of campus, your campus is gone.”
Michael Cathcart, a coordinator for the “Vote No Prop. 2” campaign, believes students should care and vote “No” because of the limitations the proposition would place on the Spokane economy.
“We have a lack of really good jobs for graduates in Spokane, right now,” he said. “When you start doing things that are anti-business … It just makes it that much more of a challenge to create really good jobs for graduates.”
“Spokane has a unique set of factors that kind of create a sort of impending certain storm,” said Madsen.
Madsen said that the amount of trains and the path they take through Spokane, as well as the overall volatility of the oil and the cities poor drainage system, which in the case of a spill would send the oil into the heart of the city, as reasons for possible catastrophe.
Madsen cited a 2013 train derailment in Quebec, Canada that killed 47 people as a reference of the devastation Spokane could face.
However, Proposition 2 opponents like Cathcart, believe there are no valid safety concerns.
“The railroads have spent billions of dollars nationally to invest in rail infrastructure, specifically safety features. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington state doing the same thing.”
“[The companies] work really hard to ensure that [the railroads] are safe and that’s why there has not been a major derailing in the city of Spokane in many decades,” said Cathcart.
According to Cathcart, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Washington’s rail infrastructure and Spokane’s tracks are inspected at twice the rate that is required by the federal government.
“If they’re telling you [the tracks] aren’t safe they’re not basing that on facts on the ground. They’re basing it on some issues that have occurred, unfortunately, in other communities, but here in Spokane that has not been the situation,” Cathcart said.
Opponents of the proposal, like Cathcart, believe that Proposition 2 will do more harm than it will good.
“If in fact this could be implemented, I think you run the risk of creating a more hazardous environment for Spokane,” he said. “Transportation method of coal and oil would simply divert to trucks and instead of being on railroad, you’ll now have it directly on the highways.”
Cathcart also believes that Proposition 2 takes attention away from the issues that truly need it.
“We have limited resources. Our streets are in a terrible state of disrepair. Crime is just going rampant in this community and these are things that should be our absolute, number one priority,” Cathcart said. “When you put something like this forward, you run the risk of syphoning off more money from these crucial issues.”
Madsen believes there are ulterior motives behind the large dissent to Proposition 2 by those who use the railroads.
“The oil companies and the rail companies have put like $100,000 into their budget to fight this,” Madsen said. He believes this is indicative of the fact that the companies know there is an issue.
Both campaigns hope voters will do their research and gain a better understanding of the issue before ballots are due on Nov. 7.
“If you are wondering about this, just spend some time downtown and give it 15, 20 minutes and I guarantee you a massive oil train will pass through downtown,” Madsen said.
“We are asking voters to be educated on this issue,” Cathcart said. “We just want voters to understand, safety is paramount for everyone involved, but to illegally regulate the railroads at the city level is not the way to go about this.”
Ian Davis-Leonard is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @ilowe714.