Post Falls, don’t miss the train

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Kelly

Two separate Press articles published back on April 17 had more in common than meets the eye.

“In Memory of Rails Along The Trail” unveiled a plan to build a monument honoring railroads that once transported commerce and tourists to and from Coeur d’Alene. “Proposed Post Falls District Gets Mixed Reviews” covered an urban renewal district designed to generate “future economic development that would create jobs in the Idaho Veneer and Post Falls Landing sites.”

Coeur d’Alene was once an important enough commercial center that four different railroad companies built branch lines into the city, their tracks running side-by-side and leapfrogging over each other to grab their share of the timber, mineral, and tourist trade. Those tracks are now gone, some converted into trails, but forever erased from the map after Coeur d’Alene’s many lumber mills with their good-paying jobs got replaced by theaters, shopping centers, condos, and a golf course.

While Coeur d’Alene prepares to commemorate the rail service it has lost, Post Falls is failing to capitalize on its one remaining rail spur that could attract new industries offering living-wage jobs. That track, owned by BNSF, ends just east of Huetter Road in the Mill River development but is technically out of service from Cedar Street eastward. It used to run clear into Coeur d’Alene.

The recent fire at the Plummer Forest Products mill was a wake-up call. Many local residents don’t even know it exists, but PFP has been the biggest shipper in Post Falls for BNSF. If that mill closes, two other rail customers (Idaho Veneer, Interstate Plastics) could be in jeopardy of losing their service, as would the city center as a whole.

Post Falls has been saying for many years that it’s trying to attract new businesses offering higher-paying jobs, and yet it makes contradictory moves like re-zoning the log yard east of Idaho Veneer to accommodate high-density housing. That was a major loss of rail-serviced commercial property, something that’s in very short supply around here. And it will put hundreds of new residents very close to the remaining Idaho Veneer site, creating conflict for any effort to use that site for businesses shipping goods in or out by rail.

Why should Post Falls care about rail? Just look at the booming economies and jobs growth in places like the Tri Cities, Moses Lake, Quincy, and the West Plains. Ask local officials in each of those communities and they’ll tell you that the availability of freight rail service was a key factor for many of the companies who chose to build there. Those companies deal in ag products, packaged foods, light manufacturing, and more. Rail lines capable of carrying freight are considered vital lifelines to local and national economies in the same way as utilities such as web, wireless, water, or electricity.

The new Katerra wood products plant in Spokane Valley could have fit on the Post Falls log yard site, bringing with it more than 100 permanent jobs. Katerra will have rail service via Union Pacific, the same rail line which runs through Stateline and the north side of Post Falls. Most of the UP line through Post Falls is surrounded by housing developments. However, property within city limits at the northeast corner of Highway 41 and Prairie Avenue could support industries with rail service on a 2-mile long UP spur. It would be better to see that land remain ag/rural, but if it does get developed, a light industry would offer more long-term benefits than another residential sprawl.

Don’t be surprised if those last few blocks of rail-served commercial property near Idaho Veneer get re-zoned for high-density housing instead of being utilized for businesses providing long-term, living-wage jobs. Such zone changes have been approved in the past by city officials whose professions are tied to home selling or whose election campaigns were funded in part by housing developers (Nov. 3, 2011, Cd’A Press).

There’s no question that the building and selling of homes generates hundreds of jobs. But on the local level, those jobs are largely transitory, moving from place to place until there’s nowhere left to build. What Post Falls needs is not just more homes, but more places where some of its residents can earn a real living without having to commute elsewhere. Coeur d’Alene has already squandered its last chance for moving commerce or commuters by the most efficient means possible. Post Falls can still think big and join the other thriving Northwest communities who are leveraging their freight rail service to attract new businesses, and with them, new jobs.

•••

A Post Falls resident since 1996, Bruce Kelly works locally and also serves as an editor and contributor to railway publications.

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