Q&A: Inslee talks biotech, I-5 Bridge replacement & energy terminal

Governor says road to new Interstate Bridge begins with a broad local consensus

Gov. Jay Inslee

Governor Jay Inslee was in Vancouver on Tuesday to celebrate the opening of AbSci’s new space on the third floor of downtown Vancouver’s Hudson Building. Prior to meeting with the biotech company, we sat down with the governor to discuss a variety of topics including the Interstate Bridge and Vancouver Energy’s proposed oil export terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

Q: Thanks for spending a few minutes with us governor. Let’s talk first about why you’re here in Vancouver, which is to celebrate AbSci and its move into this new facility. What potential do you see for companies like AbSci and biosciences in this region?

Inslee: I think AbSci’s decision to come to Washington (from Oregon) is a huge boon and boost and shot of confidence in our vision for the state. We really believe our state is the most innovative state in the nation. We believe we have an ecosystem of economic development that’s built on intellectual talent, and they (AbSci) saw it with the same abilities. So to see a company with such upside potential – they have huge upside potential – choose to come here is very exciting. We want to see biotech thrive throughout Washington and to have it now in Vancouver is just great.

This is perfect for Washington because I think that we are so fortunate to have multiple industrial bases that can be cross-fertilizing in the use of intellectual talent. So if you have an advanced mathematician, they can work in the biotech industry at one point, in the aerospace industry at another point and the space industry at another. So [we’re] developing that critical mass of talent in this state.

Q: We are literally a stone’s throw from the I-5 Bridge…

Inslee: That’s all it would take to knock it down.

Q: Right? In the last few days, legislation has advanced that aims to get the ball rolling on a potential replacement plan. What’s your take on what’s happening in Olympia right now – the conversations that are happening with regard to the bridge – and what can you do?

Inslee: This remains a high priority for the state. We know that maintaining the I-5 corridor is absolutely critical for the economy of the whole state. This is as important to the economies of Puget Sound as it is the economy of Clark County. So we’re hopeful that these conversations will continue.

What I learned from the last effort where I was fully supportive of the bridge – we had it fully teed up and ready to go; the state had done everything possible to build a bridge in Clark County and unfortunately the local community had sent to Olympia those who wanted to kill the bridge, and they killed the bridge. So what I learned is we really have to have a broad local consensus to help define this project. That’s the route to a successful bridge project.

Q: Are you hopeful that this legislation does that?

Inslee: I think it’s good that these conversations could begin again, but to succeed I think the community is, again, going to have to come to a consensus. And I think people are going to have to realize no one is going to have exclusive domain over the bridge and every single attribute on it. I guess what I’m saying is, you shouldn’t expect the project to start this month.

Q: What do you think of what we are hearing from the new administration about a commitment to building new infrastructure? Do you think we will get federal funds for something like an Interstate Bridge replacement?

Inslee: It’s unpredictable whether there will be a real infrastructure effort or not. The reason I say that is while the president has talked about having an infrastructure project, he has not identified any financing mechanism to actually pay the billions and billions of dollars that would be necessary for this infrastructure. To the extent we have heard him sort of leak things, it’s been more of expecting tolling just to pay for every project and you can’t build a whole infrastructure project just on tolling drivers. There really has to be some financing system that involves more than charging everybody a toll every time they drive over a bridge or a get on an onramp.

Before there [is] a successful infrastructure project, the president would really have to put a shoulder behind some revenue source to actually finance these projects. Now if that happens, obviously this bridge and many other projects [in the state] are things we need because we’re a growing state; we have 65,000 people moving here a year; [and] we know traffic is a huge problem in significant parts of our state. So we are a great candidate for investment…

Q: Regarding the proposed oil export terminal at the Port of Vancouver, we’ve been waiting on the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) to issue their recommendation on the project. Have you received an update from them on the timing of that recommendation?

Inslee: Nothing recent. As you know, my comments have to be extremely limited on them because I will be involved in the EFSEC process and that requires me to review the record and make a decision on the record. So I really can’t make any comments about them except that we are going to make sure it’s a good process.

Q: Without going into specific details about the terminal, how will you weigh different voices – such as the Vancouver City Council’s opposition to the project – when making a final decision on the project?

Inslee: I’m going to listen to all the voices, and I know there are will be thousands that will be part of the record. We’ll make a decision based on the record and ultimately we weigh it according to the law. The law is the guide star here and we will follow it according to the mandates of the law in making the decision.

Q: Do you think large-scale projects that have to do with natural resources make sense for Washington state?

Inslee: Like so many other things it depends on the specific project. I don’t think we should have any black or white position on projects of any particular size; each one is unique, each one has to be decided on their own merits.

I start these conversations by believing that having clean air and clean water and robust rob creation are not inconsistent – in fact they are entirely consistent. I start with the proposition that our clean air and clean water are economic assets. And our ability to have a good place to live is an economic asset when we want to recruit businesses like AbSci.

We are constantly trying to recruit companies and what we’re finding is having a great lifestyle – a good place to live [with] clean air, clean water, a place to recreate, a place for your kids to play, a beautiful place to look out the window – it’s a huge asset in job creation…

Q: Earlier you mentioned unpredictability with regard to the new administration. What is it like to be a governor right now given that dynamic?

Inslee: Well it’s very engaging because we governors are on the front line of protecting our states. So we’ve acted to protect our state from this unconstitutional travel ban that hurt businesses. The president put us through this chaos [with] such an unplanned roll out of this travel ban… Expedia, Microsoft, Amazon – they were unable to move their employees to sell their products because of this travel ban. So it was gratifying as governor to work with the attorney general – he did a great job by the way – in going to court and stopping this administration from hurting our businesses. We had a substantial victory on that, [and] the president has been forced to back up and retreat on significant parts of his effort. Now, as you know his new executive order is still problematic…

It’s gratifying to be in a position where you can help your state, and governors in states will be more important because we understand, unfortunately, that we’re probably not going to be able to look forward to the federal government helping us on issues like climate change. We believe we can grow a clean energy economy. We see it growing here with the good businesses here on a high tech basis in Clark County. We believe we can grow this clean energy economy and we’re going to continue doing that in our state un-slowed and unfettered by the fact that the White House thinks climate change is a hoax.

We think we can continue to do some things in healthcare and we’re hopeful that Congress does not damage our ability to continue our job creation around healthcare. We’ve had 50,000 new jobs because of the Affordable Care Act. We want to continue that job creation…

I guess the best thing about being governor is we still have some control over our own destiny, and Washington has a bright destiny. We’ve always been forward looking. So it’s great to be governor, but it’s obviously anxiety producing. I was at the White House last weekend and the president was talking about healthcare and I was just flabbergasted [when] he said, “Who knew that healthcare could be complicated?” I was just stunned hearing somebody say that. It was sort of like getting on a plane, looking in the cockpit and seeing the pilot go, “Boy, look at all these gages! What do all these gages do? It’s so complicated.” So it causes a lot of anxiety, but we will persevere.