Mayors and city officials are scrambling to find ways to deal with an onslaught of new freight-rail traffic in Washington, with new projects seemingly coming online daily. Some of their frustrations are finding voice in public meetings to determine the scope of environmental review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.
That project would add 18 unit trains a day to traffic in the region, which is already at or near capacity in some sections, particularly the area from Everett to the Canadian border. At least 15 trains a day are in that section now, capacity for some choke points; Gateway Pacific Terminal would more than double that traffic when it reaches full operation later in the decade.
Regional rail traffic is facing severe stress as regional refineries look to the huge Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to feed their plants. Alaskan crude, the major source for the refineries, is past its peak and the Bakken fields are yet to be fully developed. Alaskan crude is carried in large ocean tankers; Bakken oil arrives via unit trains on the BNSF railway's tracks.
Tesoro's refinery at Anacortes has opened an addition that will add two trains a day — one full, the other returning — to haul Bakken oil. The BP refinery at Cherry Point has announced it will begin accepting Bakken oil as soon as 2014, adding about two trains a day (full and returning) when the facility reaches capacity. (A caution to those following stories of unit trainsÑalways check the figures to see if they include empty return trains as well as full trains; the difference is 100 percent.
In addition to oil, a proposed water-bottling plant at Anacortes would add another four trains a day — full and empty — to the system. The Tethys Enterprise proposal to build a plant still faces serious opposition in Anacortes, and a similar proposal was rejected in Everett, but it has a contract with the city of Anacortes for 5 million gallons of Skagit River water.
Tacoma's U.S. Oil and Refining Co. plant has begun accepting Bakken crude, and will add two unit trains a week to the load. The Tacoma News-Tribune reports that the Port of Tacoma is also looking at several proposals to build a bulk liquids handling facility on its former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site.
In British Columbia, the Port of South Surrey is moving ahead to add a coal export facility to barge some 4 million tons of Wyoming coal a year to Texada Island to be loaded on coal ships; the plan would add about two trains a day to the present four coal trains moving through Washington state to British Columbia. Vancouver's Neptune Terminal is looking to add 6 million tons of coal a year to its current 12-million ton capacity, but the shipments will be within Canada.
Do the math: To the existing rail traffic of at least 15 trains a day, Bakken oil will potentially add another six-plus trains a day; the Anacortes bottling plant potentially adds another four, and Gateway Pacific another 18 trains daily.
The total increase — if all the proposals come to fruition — would add more than 40 trains a day to a system that in some places is not designed, according to state rail studies, for more than 15 trains a day. And nearly all of the new trains would be the giant unit trains of up to 150 cars, a mile-and-a-half in length.
Northwest Washington wouldn't be impacted by a proposed coalport in Longview, but the estimated 16 trains a day it would generate will contribute to clogging the rail lines from Wyoming to Longview.
There is little public process involved in some of these proposals; British Columbia environmental reviews are lax but anti-coal forces are protesting, and the oil-train proposals in Anacortes, Cherry Pont and Tacoma face minimal or no public review.
The staggering impact of such a future has alerted local governments to the need to spend billions of dollars to upgrade rail crossings, overpasses, and possibly even bridges if the proposals advance. Most are still dealing with the impact of the economic recession.
Because the Gateway Pacific Terminal is undergoing a rigorous environmental review, it has become the focal point of local governments seeking to find ways to mitigate the impact of massive increases in rail traffic. In the scoping process, which is past halfway in a two-month study, permitting agencies are asking the public to tell them what environmental issues they want studied. The process is under the aegis of Whatcom County, Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The next public meeting, as the informal hearings are called, is Dec. 13 at the Washington Convention Center in Seattle, from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. Another meeting is slated for Vancouver on Dec. 12.
Public comments are also taken online at the project web site; they may be entered here. As of Dec. 4, more than 3,500 people had registered comments online. Five public meetings drew roughly 5,600 participants. Officials term it the largest environmental response of this type in regional history.
Infrastructure to handle a quantum leap in rail traffic has been one of the concerns voiced at the hearings, and it is increasingly worrying local governments. At the Seattle hearing, city officials will introduce a Parametrix study unveiled on Nov. 5 by Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilman Mike OÕBrien last month, citing major impacts on rail crossings in SODO and the north waterfront. "Impacts on traffic, employment and commuter traffic are all negative for Seattle," O'Brien stated, "There is no benefit."
Eric de Place of the sustainability group Sightline Institute commented, "The coal trains have virtually nothing to offer Seattle except delay and pollution. They will connect a handful of mining jobs in Wyoming or Montana to a handful of railroad jobs to a relatively small number of jobs at a port site near the Canadian border. But at what cost to jobs and businesses in Seattle and other cities along the way?"
Many local governments along the rail line from Wyoming to Bellingham would echo O'Brien and de Place's comments. Smaller cities, including Marysville, Edmonds, Mount Vernon,and Bellingham, all have rail lines running through or adjacent to downtowns and residential neighborhoods.
Marysville is perhaps the most-impacted in the region. A city of 60,020 people, mostly commuters to Everett and Seattle, Marysville is an old lumber town with a 15-mile-long commercial district running north and south — parallel to the BNSF tracks and I-5. The result, Mayor Jon Nehring reminded citizens at a pre-scoping meeting, is 11 at-grade crossings where traffic from the freeway stacks up when a long train passes. Nehring terms the Fourth Street crossing —the city's busiest —a "failed crossing" with no easy or inexpensive solution. He's looking to a new alignment for State Route 529 to help the congestion; the project is partially built, with need for more state funding. It will take millions of dollars to deal with the other crossing problems and the city continues to grow, with new suburbs to the east and north.
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