It’s all about the trains. Again.
Much of the Northwest's discussion of proposals to export coal to China has focused on the potential problems from transporting coal across the region by rail to proposed shipping facilties near Bellingham, Longview and in Oregon. And the trains are the big issue in the latest of a spate of reports on the potential impact of the region’s largest coal-export terminal, proposed at Cherry Point north of Bellingham by SSA Marine, the Seattle-based international terminal operator.
Gateway Pacific Terminal’s jobs and spending would benefit Whatcom County, which includes Bellingham, rather than the central Puget Sound area, a consulting firm told the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) last week, the first of several conclusions in a $105,000 study commissioned in March 2013.
The report by PFM Group, based in Philadelphia, consolidates several previous studies but also adds a concentration on the populous Central Sound region for the PSRC. The regional council is made up of elected leaders from governments in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties,
The operative phrase in the 235-page document is, “it depends.”
Primarily, it depends on how the region’s major railroad, BNSF, responds to the challenge of adding 18 coal trains a day to a rail system that is already heavily burdened in key spots and expecting added growth — even without coal — including from crude oil out of North Dakota, like that carried by a train that derailed in Seattle on Thursday.
“The degree to which additional train volume will affect rail freight capacity depends on both the precise routing of the trains and BNSF’s efforts to increase capacity to meet increased demand,” the report notes, spelling out ways the rail system could work for better — or worse — in the region.
If BNSF lives up to promises that it can handle the challenge, that would benefit the area’s ports and attract more business, as SSA Marine and the Port of Seattle believe. Of particular interest is triple-tracking or additional sidings at the Port of Seattle.
The PFM Group quotes from a 2012 promise to then-Gov. Chris Gregoire from BNSF Chairman Matt Rose, “I want to assure you that BNSF will ensure that we have adequate capacity to handle current and future freight and passenger volumes.” BNSF maintains that posture.
The report by PFM adds a caveat, however: “BNSF may meet the projected increase in demand for additional rail capacity as long as it is profitable for them to do so." The report added, "In February 2014, BNSF announced planned capital investments of $5 billion nationally during the calendar year — approximately a $1 billion increase over 2013 capital expenditures. More than $900 million of the $5 billion capital plan is for expansion and maintenance in the Northern Corridor — stretching from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.”
The downside — if BNSF is unable to adequately increase capacity — could hurt regional businesses that ship by rail. The report warns, “With constrained capacity, BNSF might focus on the most profitable cargo, potentially affecting shippers of other cargo in ways that are unknown at this time. Smaller customers could find it harder to transport goods by rail and gain access to the region’s ports. The region’s ports could experience changes in commodities and freight volume depending upon the relative profitability of each type of goods.”
For the PRSC, deeply involved in mass-transit issues, there was a warning that increased coal traffic could raise the costs of using of BNSF lines for regional Sounder commuter trains and long-distance Amtrak travel. Or it might lead to complete elimination of passenger rail services or slower times.
The consultants put a price tag on delays at rail crossings as the coal trains pass: a total economic impact for the four-county region, ranging from $3.2 million to $3.8 million annually. Waiting times due to traffic for the GPT project would be increased from 41 percent to 147 percent, depending on location.
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