Snohomish County may open trash hauling to bidders

Snohomish County leaders are gearing up to revisit a $20-million-per-year contract that sends garbage by rail to Eastern Washington and might soon open it up to competition.

The bidding process for the mammoth job won’t start for at least another six months, but it’s already generating controversy. Debate revolves around how much time the county needs to prepare.

County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office has said the county could be ready to start a new contract within two years.

Members of the County Council are skeptical of that timetable, which they see as too short. It would be a grave mistake, they say, to rush into two-decade contract for nearly a half billion dollars.

“The executive’s original proposal was to get this done by early 2013,” Councilman Dave Gossett said. “I and the other council members were concerned that would lead to a disaster.”

Gossett said his biggest fear was the spectre of trash piling up on people’s lawns if the county finds itself with a trash system that doesn’t work.

The current contract belongs to Allied Waste Services and expires in May 2013. The Arizona-based company operates a system in place since 1992, originally under Rabanco, which it later acquired. Since then, rather than dispose of trash in local dumps, Snohomish County has shipped its garbage to a north Everett rail yard. From there, trains take it to a landfill in Roosevelt, in Klickitat County.

These days, it amounts to about 60 containers worth of trash every day, leaving the county by rail.

Snohomish County is negotiating with Allied Waste for a short-term contract extension, possibly for two years, Reardon executive director Peter Camp has said. The next step is for the county to hire a consultant to help shape a request for proposals.

In October, the County Council passed a resolution urging a short-term extension of the Allied Waste contract, saying there wasn’t enough time for due diligence before Allied’s contract expires. After that, however, council members have said that entertaining bids for the work would be appropriate.

Competition is bound to be fierce.

Houston-based Waste Management has shown a keen interest. Other major players in the industry might want to make a play for the job as well.

Tim Crosby, a Waste Management director for Washington state, during an October County Council meeting warned of potential rate increases if the county sticks with the current arrangement.

“There’s a very simple solution to this — competition,” Crosby said.

Later, he added that, “It’s been 20 years and competition is long overdue.”

Allied Waste, meanwhile, said it is prepared to offer the county “a vision for a continuing successful long-term partnership.”

County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said he appreciates the complexity of the county’s long-haul garbage system because he worked as a county staffer on the original contract 20 years ago.

“This is a big deal,” he said.

One concern is that changing trash haulers too quickly could lead to unstable garbage rates for taxpayers.

Another concern: Allied’s $660,000 yearly lease on the north Everett rail yard from the Port of Everett lasts into 2018 with an option to extend for 10 years. If another company were to win the county’s long-haul trash contract, it might have to truck waste to another rail facility outside the county. That might mean moving 60 truckloads of trash every day south on congested stretches of I-5 to a rail yard in Seattle.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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