Idaho legislators this year didn't come through with any funding to plan for a proposed "Inland Pacific Hub" that would try to position the North Idaho-Eastern Washington region as a center for global commerce.
But backers are still optimistic that the plan can move forward. Washington legislators set aside $250,000, the same amount backers had hoped Idaho would kick in, and $500,000 in federal funding is in the works.
"We are pursuing some grant opportunities to try to tide us over," said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene. "If we can get something done to tide us over and then are able to successfully fund this in the next fiscal year, we'll still be all right."
Idaho lawmakers didn't oppose the concept, said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. "It just got lost in the budget priorities," she said. "In the press of the session and with all the other things going on, we weren't able to move it forward."
But legislators, particularly those from North Idaho, were supportive, Keough said. "I think there's a recognition that an intermodal hub would be a positive step not only for existing businesses and transportation challenges, but for recruiting new businesses that provide jobs."
The idea is to take advantage of a series of transportation advantages the region has - such as much-lower landing fees at the Spokane International Airport than at airports in big coastal cities, a 24-hour border crossing with Canada at Eastport that includes the only place where Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific tracks touch, an inland seaport at Lewiston that offers a low-cost way to transport large quantities of commodities, extensive rail and fiber optic lines, and a road system that connects east and west and north and south.
"There are a lot of pieces out there," Goedde said.
Hub backers note that the region is within a 16-hour drive of major trade centers including Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Edmonton and San Francisco. The economy in Alberta, Canada, is booming, in part because of oil sands investment, and British Columbia is investing large sums into exploring gateway and hub transportation strategies.
Meanwhile, traffic congestion in and around more traditional port cities is worsening and having an impact on commerce.
But positioning the Inland Northwest as a major transportation hub for trade would mean making all the various pieces of its transportation system work seamlessly together, Goedde said. The Inland Pacific Hub strategy calls for studying those pieces and where they do and don't fit together, identifying "critical choke points in our network," and fixing them.
That could mean anything from building new roadways, such as an alternative route to connect the Coeur d'Alene Airport to I-90, to bringing together business, community and government leaders from the two states to share strategies.
An Inland Pacific Hub could move goods to Russia or China with an 18-hour flight, and to Europe with a 12-hour flight, according to hub backers. The Spokane airport is actually closer to Tokyo than San Francisco or Los Angeles, closer to New York than those two cities and Seattle, and closer to London than any of the three.
"It has worked in other areas, Kansas City being one, and it has created a huge economic incentive for business growth in the area," Goedde said.
Goedde said he's met with staffers for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the subcommittee on transportation appropriations.
"The Inland Pacific Hub is a private-sector initiative at this point," Goedde said. "There's a group of business people in Spokane and Kootenai County that have organized this effort."
Avista Corp., the Spokane Regional Transportation Council and the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization all have been involved.
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The new facility will be north of the new XN Aviation maintenance hangar, which was approved and built last year with similar funding arranged by the airport and the state.