Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series on the local impact of the giant Gateway Pacific coal export terminal being considered for Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. If approved and built, Gateway Pacific will dramatically increase the number and size of trains hauling coal through western Washington's railroad towns. Yesterday, we looked at how the prospect of Big Coal plays in industrial Ferndale. Here we visit small town Burlington, just 40 miles down the track.
Merchants and publicans who settled the Skagit River town of Burlington more than a century ago loved their railroad. It brought patrons from “dry” Mount Vernon on the river’s south bank to the downtown saloons in Burlington where they dropped their money before catching the train back home.
That story may be apocryphal, but swap shopping mall for saloons and the formula still works. Burlington’s sprawling Cascade mall generates millions in sales-tax dollars for Burlington’s city budget. These days, the shoppers drive home on I-5.
But some things do change.
Burlington is no longer enthusiastic about its railroad. The tipplers of long ago have been replaced by heavy industrial goods; the passenger depot is long gone and the railroad is on the verge of a coal and oil binge.
The BNSF mainline carries up to 20 trains a day through Burlington, including four coal trains to and from Canada. The Gateway Pacific Terminal, proposed north of Bellingham at Cherry Point, would add 18 more coal trains a day to the current load passing through town. The threat of doubling train traffic has dulled the rail romance for many locals.
To complicate matters, two separate spur lines take off from the BNSF mainline in Burlington; a line going through Sumas (to Canada) is lightly used but has been discussed as an overflow line to serve Gateway Pacific. A separate spur to Anacortes is already hauling crude oil to refineries there. The three lines criss-cross in Burlington's old downtown. Unlike Ferndale, only 40 miles north on I-5, Burlington has a rail headache with none of the economic benefits that Ferndale expects.
“Incredibly fragile,” is how Café Burlington owner Brad Whaley describes historic downtowns, like Burlington’s, along the rail line. “You get gridlock in a small town and every business closure is a job loss.” Café Burlington boasts local organic fare and a front window plastered with anti-coal signs. “They’re going to be up until this whole thing is over,” Whaley vows.
Further down Fairhaven Avenue, the heart of old Burlington, is Nick Crandall’s Train Wreck Bar. The bar’s name, explains Crandall (pictured below), simply reflects its location, just five steps from a BNSF spur line, and not his position on the export terminal. He hasn’t taken sides on that yet. Crandall sees no evidence of coal dust in Burlington, but he shares Brad Whaley’s concerns about trains tying up traffic and driving away customers. Fairhaven Avenue has two rail crossings in half a dozen blocks.
At the town’s Senior Center, a table of residents is divided by gender. The men are undisturbed by the prospect of more trains; their four female friends are adamantly opposed. Nearby, Eleanor Van Tol (below) was in the process of placing a “No Coal” sign in her front yard when she confided concerns about her neighbors in the elder-care facilities. What if they need an ambulance, which has to come from across the tracks?
City officials are concerned about that as well, especially since Burlington moved its emergency services across the tracks from the old downtown to the fast-expanding business core west of the railroad. That was back in the 1990s. No one foresaw the magnitude of increased rail traffic that is occurring two decades later.
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