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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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