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"We don't stand to get any of the benefits (of added rail traffic)," Nehring told Crosscut, "we just take all the hits." He admits the railroad was here before Marysville's growth, "but life changes, circumstances change."
A few miles south, the much tonier suburb of Edmonds faces a different rail challenge, where Main Street, the Kingston Ferry and the BNSF mainline come together near a senior center, Amtrak station and a city park. The congestion, says Mayor Dave Earling, is "an old problem unsolved and it would be much worse if Gateway Pacific is built."
The Edmonds City Council passed a resolution opposing the coal shipments, and Earling is working to line up support for an expensive underpass that would route ferry traffic under the railroad to the dock. He wants BNSF to help pay for the $60 to $80 million project and is lobbying state and federal officials. Earling told an "underpass rally" earlier this year, "Rail traffic is projected to increase to up to 100 trains per day by 2030. Some of these trains will be more than a mile long. This situation would impose unacceptable limits on waterfront access and be catastrophic for our town."
Edmonds is on the Sound Transit line and about 42 trains a day now use the rail tracks in the city. Paula Hammond, head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, told the Everett Herald that Earling's "notion is right. I think that as our economy recovers and our ports increase the work they're doing, we can only expect more train traffic. It's a good problem to work on."
Hammond and elected officials will hear more appeals as added rail traffic comes on line. A host of local governments and agencies are lined up to express concerns, and the impacts on road-rail congestion add up to billions of dollars. A long siding in Bellingham, which has been cited by transportation consultants as a likely impact if the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built, would cut access to a popular city park; a remedy would cost several millions. A suggested replacement of the Skagit River rail bridge, which appears to be primarily flood-related, is estimated at $500 million. Overpasses or underpasses to replace at-grade crossings cost in the tens of millions apiece.
Gibson Traffic Consultants of Seattle did studies of several Northwest Washington communities and found critical infrastructure needs in all. "While grade separation is desirable particularly because of the already complicated I-5 interchanges . . . these improvements are typically multi-million dollar solutions and funding is not yet planned," Gibson noted in its Mount Vernon study.
As if to underscore the issues of train traffic on small-city crossings, a BNSF southbound freight broke down in Mount Vernon Thursday morning, stalling traffic for 45 minutes on three streets, including busy College Way. The railroad blamed a locked wheel for the problem and closed College Way for 48 hours to fix a section of track. The College Way crossing had been under discussion for some time with the railroad, city officials said. Three downtown Mount Vernon crossings are at-grade and most susceptible to shutdowns.
WSDOT's current rail freight study, published in 2009, pegged state needs at $2 billion, calculated before the surge of energy-related rail traffic. The study concluded:
The greatest obstacle to implementation of this plan is the lack of a dedicated reoccurring funding source at both the state and federal levels. With 90% of the $2.0 billion in rail needs identified in this plan unfunded, the state will have to pursue federal funding, as well as boost state spending, and establish public-private partnerships to close the gap between available resources and freight rail needs.
WSDOT is working on a new rail-freight plan to be completed in 2013, and costs will certainly be higher. Federal regulations limit to 5 percent the amount that can be assessed to a railroad for safety or traffic improvements to crossings. The railroad is allowed to spend more if it wishes, but that rarely happens.
Contributions to mitigate the effects of added rail traffic could be part of an environmental review, particularly if done on an area-wide basis. Developers of export terminals, for instance, could be required to contribute to a pool to deal with major transportation problems caused or exacerbated by added rail traffic, a form of mitigation that likely is without precedent. BNSF has been upgrading its tracks in anticipation of the additional traffic, although it is quoted in the 2009 state survey as telling WSDOT, "From a freight perspective, BNSF believes sufficient capacity exists for the foreseeable future. Indeed, BNSF's planning staff sees nothing in this corridor as 'freight driven' with the current volumes at this time. Increased volumes may require capacity improvements."
Seemingly both BNSF and much of the public was caught unaware of the demand for energy in Asia and the intense push on the part of coal and oil producers to service that demand. But the pressure is real from all sides — including those who worry about global warming, life in the shadow of train horns and diesel fumes, and the very nature of the regions livability. Of necessity not everything can run at capacity without enormous costs in public funds and private lives. The process of sorting it out will take years.
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