How coal trains could choke NW's economic engines

A new study sees possible trouble for ports, manufacturers, and communities along rail lines.
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A new study sees possible trouble for ports, manufacturers, and communities along rail lines.

A new study of rail transportation problems associated with the transport of millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest was released today in Montana, citing "a huge, huge increase in volume that we've never seen in this part of the world."

That assessment came from Terry C. Whiteside, a Billings-based transportation consultant who co-authored the regional study. In a telephone news conference he cited potential impacts on time-sensitive shipments of other commodities, including grain and Northwest manufactured goods headed for markets in the Midwest. Whiteside and Gerald W. Fauth III, a transit consultant based in Alexandria, Va., said Northwest communities need to unite to assure a full review of the impact on local communities.

Numerous Northwest governments and organizations have called for a broad environmental impact review of the six U.S. export terminals that are proposed; most have directed their concerns to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the lead federal agency on the  applications for terminals where permits have already been filed.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), sponsor of the new study, supports that idea, but also suggests an appeal to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads. "The STB has often been involved incases which involved mitigation resulting from increased railroad traffic levels," the consultants said, including cases related to Powder River Basin coal.

Export terminals now under consideration in Washington and Oregon would attract an estimated 63 million tons of coal in 2017 if all are opened, expanding to as much as 145 million tons in 2022. By comparison, just over 5 million tons were burned in 2011 by the Northwest's two coal plants, both of which will close by 2025.

Most observers do not expect that all proposals will be approved, and the timetable could be delayed. Most of the coal will be moved on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rails; a small amount to Oregon ports would be on Union Pacific lines.

The WORC report focuses on heavy-impact areas or "choke points" on the thousand-mile route from the mines to West Coast ports. Among those spots are Billings, Mont., and a segment known as "The Funnel" between Sandpoint, Idaho, and Spokane. Coal traffic at Spokane could be up to 63 trains a day in addition to the heavy traffic the city already bears; in Billings it would be 58 trains per day. City governments in both cities and in Cheney, which is bisected by rail lines, are among those calling for broad reviews of the export terminals.

The report assumes that BNSF will carry all of the coal coming into Washington ports and some of the Oregon-bound coal. In Washington, the line from Spokane through Tri-Cities, the Columbia Gorge, and north toward Bellingham is expected to carry most or all of the loaded coal trains and most of the empty returns. Some of the latter could be routed through Stampede Pass, which cannot handle loaded cars. The report sees some loaded cars using Stevens Pass.

WORC believes the most serious choke points are near Spokane and Billings. In the case of Spokane, four major rail lines converge between Spokane and Sandpoint and average 46 freight trains a day, in addition to Amtrak. A major upgrade was designed to handle 70 trains a day; WORC notes that the coal traffic at buildout would far exceed that capacity if all terminals are approved.

Spokane is already heavily impacted by rail traffic, and the city has asked for a study of the coal terminals that includes its rail impacts. Even more impacted is the nearby small city of Cheney, where the same trains bisect the city. Cheney officials are also demanding that their impacts be studied. "What's happening to us is we are bearing unacceptable external costs," Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove told reporters in a May telephone conference; he said the city hoped to pursue a "quiet zone" by enhancing crossings but BNSF plans for a double track will make that impossible.

"As a result of these capacity and congestion problems, there are many areas which will require major upgrading and expansion of existing tracks," the WORC report says, "It is likely that hundreds of miles of railroad lines will require expansion from single to double or even triple track. Other railroad infrastructure, such as bridges, tunnels, highway crossings, will also need to be replaced or upgraded in order to adequately, efficiently and safely handle the expected traffic levels.

"The required upgrading and expansion of railroad tracks and related infrastructure could well cost billions of dollars," the consultants continue, "State and local governments will likely be called upon to bear the brunt and burden of these related costs and will likely be required to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in related mitigation, litigation, debt and other costs associated with the necessary improvements to accommodate export coal traffic levels."

BNSF has consistently maintained that it will be able to handle increased traffic from coal exports, but it has not revealed details of how that will be done and how that will impact local communities. The railroad's Fort Worth spokesperson, Suann Lundsberg, told the Associated Press, "I can assure you BNSF will not underinvest to accommodate our customers' businesses and our past investments are proof of that." She also noted that Union Pacific would also carry coal to the region.

Under federal regulations, railroads are rarely required to bear a share of the cost of building new crossings, overpasses or underpasses or other items to alleviate the impact of trains on local traffic or noise. If a railroad is ordered by the state to build an overpass to replace an at-grade signalized crossing, it may be required to pay 5 percent of the cost, which typically runs several million dollars. Other mitigations are typically borne by local governments, which in turn attempt to get state or federal help.

Federal legislation could change that regulation, but railroads have a history of being treated well by Congress and federal regulatory agencies.

The WORC study also warned that Northwest ports, particularly Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, would be harmed by the increased traffic, which would lead to longer times to ship intermodal goods to Midwest markets. Grain shipments to Asia could also be impacted, the consultants warned, as the timing of grain trains to meet ships could be hindered by rail congestion.

WORC's report is the first rail-traffic study to examine the entire export route from the Powder River Basin to terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Other studies have examined the impact on cities in Washington and all have concluded that there is a significant impact on local communities, both in the costs associated with handling the increased train traffic and in dealing with potential pollution, including noise and air and water quality.

Studies by Gibson Traffic Consultants, done for CommunityWise Bellingham, project the impact of double-tracking the rails running through a key part of a downtown development project there and the tourist-attractive village of Fairhaven. The Bellingham City Council is pressing for inclusion of rail impacts in the permit applications filed for a proposed Cherry Point terminal, and is expected to join the list of cities appealing for a wide-ranging environmental impact study study.

Gibson Traffic Consultants conducted studies for several other cities along the rail line, including a May study of Edmonds' concerns about conflicting rail and ferry traffic.

Among the local governments expressing opposition to coal shipments or calling for regional studies such as an expanded EIS, are city councils in Seattle, Spokane, Cheney, Edmonds, Olympia, Marysville, Mukilteo, Washougal, and Stevenson in Washington.  Elsewhere, similar statements have come from governments in Missoula, Mont., Sandpoint, Idaho, and Portland, Hood River, and Mosier in Oregon. With the exception of Olympia, all are on rail lines that would carry coal from the Powder River Basin to West Coast ports.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has expressed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerns over coal export terminal proposals in the Columbia River Basin. Similar concerns have been voiced by the Nez Perce Tribe, Yakama Nation, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon.

Concerns about rail traffic have dominated much of the discussion of the export terminals in recent weeks, but other concerns dealing with marine traffic, air and water pollution, fisheries issues, and local economies will come to the fore in the next several weeks as environmental review begins on the largest of the six Northwest terminals, Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. The process of scoping — determining the boundaries of environmental studies — is expected to begin about Sept. 1 and last 60 to 120 days.

It is during these scoping hearings that the extent of examination of rail impacts will be determined. Despite a widespread call for inclusion of rail impacts, terminal operator SSA Marine has insisted that environmental review be contained to the terminal site itself. Lead agencies — Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology for the state study and the Corps of Engineers for the federal government — will determine the scope. Environmental review, contracted to the engineering firm CH2M Hill, is expected to take up to two years. The Cherry Point application is the furthest-along of the Washington proposals.

In Oregon, the most-advanced proposal is the Port of Morrow's application to receive coal by train, unload it on site, and transfer it to barges for shipment through Columbia River locks to St. Helens, west of Portland on the Columbia River.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.