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By Will DeMarco
Gazette Reporter 

Port debates backing I-5 fiber project


July 26, 2018 | View PDF

In a split vote last Thursday, Port of Whitman County Commissioners signed a letter of intent to collaborate with ports from across Washington on a telecommunications conduit along the I-5 corridor and tentatively pledged to contribute $800,000 to the project.

Port Commissioner Tom Kammerzell objected to signing the letter of intent and investing $800,000.

“This may be the most important vote I’ve been a part of in the six years I’ve been commissioner and it may be the most important action the Port takes in the next 20 to 40 years,” Kammerzell said. “I’m concerned we’re entering into an agreement and committing funds at the very same meeting where the details of this proposal are first being presented.”

Pointing to a section of the proposal stating that members may be asked to make additional capital investments in the project if deemed necessary, Kammerzell raised concern over the potential for ongoing, unplanned financial obligations

Commissioners Kristine Meyer and John Love voted in favor.

Meyer challenged Kammerzell’s concerns, stating the proposal has been discussed multiple times in recent months during port meetings.

“I think we’ve moved forward with an abundance of caution,” Meyers said.

The proposed initiative would involve as many as 14 other ports around the state working to install infrastructure used for fiber-optic communications from Seattle to Portland. In signing the letter, commissioners indicated an interest in entering a 20-year contract to build and maintain the fiber conduit.

Total estimated cost is $7.6 million.

Port of Whitman has been asked to serve as managing partner for the joint venture and would be compensated.

Port Executive Director Joe Poire agreed to devote approximately half his time working on the project.

Many private companies have already expressed interested in leasing the fiber network’s services, Poire reported. He believes the Port could “easily make their money back.”

The proposal estimates the project will garner $20,000 per month in gross revenues during the first year of operation and would increase to an estimated $140,000 each month by fiscal 2039. Each port would bear any net losses or profits associated with the project relative to their initial contributions.

Kammerzell also noted the proposal may only be the first half of a larger effort to install telecommunications infrastructure north from Seattle, which he said adds even more uncertainty about the Port’s future commitments. Kammerzell said the contract ought to undergo legal review before anything is agreed upon.

Kammerzell questioned the benefit local residents will receive from an $800,00 investment of taxpayer funds to build infrastructure on the west side of the state.

Meyer refuted Kammerzell’s stance, arguing that the investment is an efficient use of Port funds as it “leverages the scaled powers” of pooled resources.

Poire added the project provides an indirect, yet worthwhile benefit to Whitman County residents. Poire likened the fiber network to railroads and interstate highways, saying it offers locals greater access to information and goods from other parts of the world.

Kammerzell voiced opposition to Poire’s proposed obligation to the project. Committing half of Poire’s work hours to a project that provides no direct benefit to the county is “unacceptable.” He said no other port district in Washington comparable in size of Whitman County’s operates in such a manner.

Meyer once again rebutted Kammerzell, contending the deal helps local residents indirectly through benefits such as lower internet costs and better connectivity.

“We’re getting far more than $800,000 of value for the benefit of our citizens,” Meyer said.

The port will meet with project members Aug. 20 to negotiate the proposed initiative.

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