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Coal train impacts feared along the Sound

Like many other cities, Seattle, Edmonds and Marysville are alarmed at the prospect of massive coal trains and their effects on communities. Compounding it all, tracks are already reaching capacity or nearing it.

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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.

"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."


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, heaven forbid that we have to pause in our (mostly single occupancy) vehicles to let some additional unit trains pass by hauling oil, coal, wheat, lumber, cars, etc. Let's continue to ignore in this debate that trains are roughly 4x as efficient as trucks in hauling the freight that makes this region economically competitive. Why isn't the environmental community arguing as vehemently for an EIS every time a trucking company expands its shipping facilities or expands its fleet of trucks? Rail should be the comparative darling given its significantly more efficient/"green" attributes.

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Amazing that all articles in Papers along the route only talk about impacts on their community. Everyone is focused on the trains, traffic and jobs.... But the 700 new coal plants in China, and the 170% increase in coal powered plants in China over the last decade, is never mentioned. Somehow everyone can keep a clear conscious because they aren't mining the coal, nor are they burning it. Fits in nicely with our denial on climate change. Why are we following Cananda that was just rated the worse carbon producing country in the world? Why does any regional attempt at conservation fail? Because all anyone cares about is their backyard... The Evergreen State? Really... More like the Evergreed State. Greed in that we continue to live beyond the lands means.

Blake

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

How about this, the at grade crossing space is of a higher benefit to the public good, than a rail line, at the Edmonds crossing and several other state highways. The people of the State of Washington legally take that at grade crossing property by eminent domain. We then offer the railroad to generously help with 5% of the cost if they would like to build a rail bridge over our roadway.

I only offer this to show how absurd or archaic the crossing and safety funding system is. When was this formula devised, 1890, before the interstate highway system was built?

Every time a train goes over a busy state road, it needs to pay a per use impact fee. That is a better funding system.

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Of course there'll be an impact. The trouble is 67% of the state's population live in the Puget Sound area and as a general rule we're very selfish. If it ain't good for Seattle, go away. This applies to up and down the sound. Coal just happens to be the latest poster child for icky.

I'm surprised that there isn't a move afoot to turn the all rails to bike trails movement. That would solve the coal port problem with a local solution.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 12:25 a.m. Inappropriate

By Jove, you've got it, Djinn.

I'm sure that Cascade Bike Club will be in touch, as will all the computer/hi-tech companies that only hire the very young who can actually still ride a bike.

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 4:13 p.m. Inappropriate

"let some additional unit trains pass by hauling oil, coal, wheat, lumber, cars, etc."

Except that the only things that anyone is actually talking about hauling are Coal and Oil. The oil is for refineries in the region, but the coal is all for export,

The coal profiteers approach is quite traditional: privatize the profits and socialize the cost. They get the profit. We get the cost. In transportation impacts, health impacts (pollution from burning this coal in Asia is carried here); and the Brontosaurus (Gorillas and Elephants are way too small) in the living room - global overheating. Hey. its the American way. Its traditional. But we don't have to let them do this to us.

I like the idea of taking the crossings via eminent domain.

Steve E.

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

To expand on the idea of condemning the crossings for the purpose of making the RR's and their Coal Buddies pay for crossings that infringe on everyone else's rights and ability to travel freely:

Short of requiring the construction of adequate elevated crossings, another option is to simply impose schedules when the trains can use any particular crossing. For example, to assure that 1 out of 3 crossings in an area is always available for use by emergency vehicles. Or that 10,000 commuters can get home in a timely fashion. You get the idea. This is no different than metering vehicles entering an interstate highway or imposing congestion pricing. Its simply a traffic management strategy. Perfectly constitutional.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 5:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Barge it out of Longview and be done with it.

ivan

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 12:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Chehalis does have the coal plant just off I-5. I knew it in the back of my head, but Thursday I saw that long tunnel cloud, and realized it was a white cloud, shaped much like a funnel, that came down to the ground. That's it, nothing dramatic.

The coal comes from Wyoming.

You don't like it? Then go out, invent something clean, and that is an improvement.

Complaining won't work. Cure the problem.

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 3:15 a.m. Inappropriate

If these coal trains, and coal ports are allowed, don't come talking to me about the need to reduce carbon emmissions.

jhande

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 12:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Why? If another country ships their coal to asian markets, we're still going to need the same carbon emmission trades.

At least this way, if we're the shippers, we keep the profits at home. And control more than just the steering of the train.

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 12:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Why? If another country ships their coal to asian markets, we're still going to need the same carbon emmission trades.

At least this way, if we're the shippers, we keep the profits at home. And control more than just the steering of the train.

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 6:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Ah, Sightline. These are the same people who hurl the "NIMBY" epithet at anyone who opposes any development that Sightline's favorite billionaries support. Not that they're pseudo-"progressive" hypocrites or anything like that.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 12:20 a.m. Inappropriate

RR transportation. Federally funded, seems like we're goign to allow the coal trains.

Seems also like it makes sense. When we know where it goes, we control the safety of how it arrives.

For us as well as 'them uns'. It's not like we don't already use a massive amount of coal here at home either. We do.

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