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Railroad officials have said 15 trains a day now use its tracks between Everett and Bellingham; that’s practical capacity for the present system, according to state reports and TSM. If Cherry Point is built to capacity it adds another 18 trains to the line — more than double present capacity. Without dramatic improvement, the coal can’t be shipped.
Thus the sudden pressure on those old plans to add capacity for Amtrak, because they would also add capacity for the coal trains.
Building a second track through Bellingham’s waterfront and also expanding the Samish siding south of Chuckanut Drive would boost daily train capacity to 24 trains, TSM believes. But that is still far short of the 33 per day that would be needed when the Cherry Point terminal is built to capacity.
It would be possible, a 2008 WSDOT Amtrak report and the 2011 Cascadia Study concluded, to add a third Amtrak train between Seattle and Vancouver without the south Bellingham or Samish sidings. "This study shows that the addition of Bellingham-Everett regional rail service, plus the operation of one additional Cascade round trip Seattle-Vancouver, will not degrade current freight performance, but instead will improve it, assuming concurrent track capacity improvements," the studies stated.
But they also stressed that BNSF, if the coal terminal is approved, would be well beyond the capacity of the rail line to ship the coal, and could reject the third Amtrak run because its lines would be full. In that event, communities like Bellingham could wind up with more freight trains and rail tracks, but no added Amtrak.
There is simply no other way to move the coal other than add the second Bellingham line, and probably other sidings along the route north of Everett. If the state can justify these improvements as benefitting Amtrak, taxpayer funds could be used. Otherwise, BNSF would need to finance the expensive projects itself, perhaps with help from its export partners. And Amtrak could be out of luck.
State planners — and the TSM study agrees — see the added Bellingham sidings as the only solution if Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. In effect, if the city doesn't like the second siding, its only option is to work to defeat the coal-export terminal itself.
WSDOT wants both an enhanced Amtrak and an enhanced rail-freight corridor from Everett to British Columbia. Clearly a second track would allow both — at a price to communities like Bellingham — but even that may not be enough to serve a full-capacity GPT operation. Because the second track only brings capacity to about 24 trains and GPT at capacity will need 33 trains.
Perhaps in consideration of that point, BNSF told city officials last week that three tracks might be needed through at least part of the waterfront. The third track might be only a short siding, or it could be part of a plan to add track capacity along a much longer segment.
The South Bellingham siding, WSDOT documents reveal, would close several busy crossings and eliminate vehicular access to the popular Boulevard Park and Taylor Dock; the city continues to make heavy investments in the park and dock, a walkway over Bellingham Bay that will eventually connect the historic Fairhaven village to downtown. Environmental reviews may be needed; the line runs along the bay.
This type of major rail upgrading could also have a big impact on communities such as Mount Vernon, Burlington, Edmonds and Marysville, where tracks run through critical commercial or residential areas; preliminary traffic studies reveal potential heavy costs in the four towns from added train traffic. City councils at Edmonds and Marysville are on record opposing added coal traffic through their communities; in Bellingham a community group is collecting signatures to ban shipment of coal through the city with an initiative that could surely face legal challenges.
If upgrading occurs, local governments are often forced to share large parts of the mitigation costs. Separating grade crossings with overpasses or installing new equipment for so-called “quiet zones” costs millions of dollars, nearly all of which comes from taxpayer funds. When a BNSF spokesman cited in March a heavily impacted community in Illinois as a good example of mitigation, Western Washington University professor and environmental lawyer Jean Melious investigated. Melious found Galesburg, Ill., with seven trains an hour and years of trying to soften the impact. BNSF paid only 2 percent of some $38 million in mitigation costs over a period of years; taxpayers at federal, state, and local levels paid the rest.
CommunityWise Bellingham’s Delay urged the city council Monday to press for inclusion of all the rail aspects in environmental review of the SSA Marine terminal plan. The important environmental “scoping” process that determines what will be studied will begin later this summer. There have been calls for a broad environmental review, including transportation, from a number of public agencies and from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The process will be long and laborious and cost both SSA Marine and the public a bundle; it’s likely to take a couple of years, during which the volatile coal market could shift and political decision-makers change. Our historic and fractured rail system — or the way we make decisions for it — may not emerge unscathed.
Determining a rational rail system for a state like Washington appears to be done in a “silo” system, with separate agencies (not to mention private railroads) drawing up grand plans, without knowing what’s in the next-door silo. Some in Bellingham claim to be blindsided by plans for massive rail changes, yet the plans have been published for years.
Northwest Washington is certainly a different place than when these plans were adopted two decades ago, and coal transports for Asian furnaces was never on the table. Does it make a difference and, if it does, do we even have a process to rethink this complex an issue?
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