Did anyone see this train coming? I mean, we looked both ways and then, bang, there it was, knocking down everything in its way. What happened?
For more than a decade, state rail planners worked on plans for high-speed Amtrak from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. and a freight rail plan based on statements from the BNSF railroad that it saw no big changes ahead. “From a freight perspective, BNSF believes sufficient capacity exists for the foreseeable future,” state freight rail planners said as late as 2009.
Meanwhile, planners in railside communities such as Bellingham and Marysville aggressively forged ahead with “green” ideas that sometimes co-existed with the tracks.
What happened about three years ago was that the world woke up to China and India growing like crazy —and it was all based on burning coal. Suddenly America’s coal giants had a market to replace the U.S. coal plants that were being shut down to combat global warming. The coal giants could sell their coal to Asia.
But they had no West Coast ports to ship their coal. They did have an eager railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) with its new deep-pocket owner, Warren Buffett.
That was the marriage made in ... well, choose your word based on your worldview ... and that was the train we didn’t see coming.
State rail reports — a freight rail plan in 2009, Amtrak long-range plans in 2006, and 2008 and even a Discovery Institute study in 2011 — simply didn’t reflect the new train in town. All were based on a 1992 plan for high-speed passenger rail.
So we are aggressively seeking federal funds — the only game in town right now — for a high-speed rail that is problematic unless someone comes up with big money to build a separate track and divorce the system from BNSF. Certainly that is true north of Seattle, where major bottlenecks persist on the present system.
The serious nature of adjusting to the new world of massive coal unit trains to feed the Chinese dragon was illustrated Monday (May 7) in a presentation to Bellingham City Council by Jack Delay, president of CommunityWise Bellingham (CWB), which bills itself as working to inform the community about impacts of a planned coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. SSA Marine of Seattle wants to export 48 million tons of Powder River coal a year and already has a contract with Peabody Coal for half that tonnage.
Delay told council members that double-tracking the present BNSF rail lines through the heart of the city’s waterfront appears to be the priority of both the state’s rail planners and BNSF. Details are contained deep within appendixes of state rail plans, he said, and include massive disruptions to one of the city’s most popular parks as well as homes, businesses and future waterfront development. The cost of the project, labeled the “South Bellingham siding,” was estimated at $102.6 million back in 2006, when it appeared in state long-range plans for Amtrak. Another $2.3 million is planned to relocate a portion of the rail line that bisects a proposed new waterfront development.
CWB’s consultant, Transit Safety Management (TSM) is a national firm hired to examine ways added coal traffic might impact Bellingham. Their report concluded: “BNSF has made no public announcement of how it intends to handle the additional traffic, nor what infrastructure must be constructed to support it. It appears likely from examination of the infrastructure proposed in the WSDOT Long Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades, that the infrastructure solution developed for increased coal train traffic will probably be similar.”
In other words, as Amtrak high-speed rail gains taxpayer funds and moves ahead to build its dream, those who benefit from coal exports will also ride the tracks. A siding built in Bellingham, grade separation in Marysville or Edmonds, or a river crossing in Burlington can be expected to be paid for by public money but provide much of the benefit to BNSF, Peabody Coal, SSA Marine, and Goldman Sachs (49 percent owner of SSA).
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