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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A BNSF freight passes alongside Bellingham's popular Taylor Dock walkway.

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.

Mayors and city officials are scrambling to find ways to deal with an onslaught of new freight-rail traffic in Washington, with new projects seemingly coming online daily. Some of their frustrations are finding voice in public meetings to determine the scope of environmental review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.

That project would add 18 unit trains a day to traffic in the region, which is already at or near capacity in some sections, particularly the area from Everett to the Canadian border. At least 15 trains a day are in that section now, capacity for some choke points; Gateway Pacific Terminal would more than double that traffic when it reaches full operation later in the decade.

Regional rail traffic is facing severe stress as regional refineries look to the huge Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to feed their plants. Alaskan crude, the major source for the refineries, is past its peak and the Bakken fields are yet to be fully developed. Alaskan crude is carried in large ocean tankers; Bakken oil arrives via unit trains on the BNSF railway's tracks.

Tesoro's refinery at Anacortes has opened an addition that will add two trains a day — one full, the other returning — to haul Bakken oil. The BP refinery at Cherry Point has announced it will begin accepting Bakken oil as soon as 2014, adding about two trains a day (full and returning) when the facility reaches capacity. (A caution to those following stories of unit trainsÑalways check the figures to see if they include empty return trains as well as full trains; the difference is 100 percent.

In addition to oil, a proposed water-bottling plant at Anacortes would add another four trains a day — full and empty — to the system. The Tethys Enterprise proposal to build a plant still faces serious opposition in Anacortes, and a similar proposal was rejected in Everett, but it has a contract with the city of Anacortes for 5 million gallons of Skagit River water.

Tacoma's U.S. Oil and Refining Co. plant has begun accepting Bakken crude, and will add two unit trains a week to the load. The Tacoma News-Tribune reports that the Port of Tacoma is also looking at several proposals to build a bulk liquids handling facility on its former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site.

In British Columbia, the Port of South Surrey is moving ahead to add a coal export facility to barge some 4 million tons of Wyoming coal a year to Texada Island to be loaded on coal ships; the plan would add about two trains a day to the present four coal trains moving through Washington state to British Columbia. Vancouver's Neptune Terminal is looking to add 6 million tons of coal a year to its current 12-million ton capacity, but the shipments will be within Canada.

Do the math: To the existing rail traffic of at least 15 trains a day, Bakken oil will potentially add another six-plus trains a day; the Anacortes bottling plant potentially adds another four, and Gateway Pacific another 18 trains daily.

The total increase — if all the proposals come to fruition — would add more than 40 trains a day to a system that in some places is not designed, according to state rail studies, for more than 15 trains a day. And nearly all of the new trains would be the giant unit trains of up to 150 cars, a mile-and-a-half in length.

Northwest Washington wouldn't be impacted by a proposed coalport in Longview, but the estimated 16 trains a day it would generate will contribute to clogging the rail lines from Wyoming to Longview.

There is little public process involved in some of these proposals; British Columbia environmental reviews are lax but anti-coal forces are protesting, and the oil-train proposals in Anacortes, Cherry Pont and Tacoma face minimal or no public review.

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."

Edmonds is on the Sound Transit line and about 42 trains a day now use the rail tracks in the city. Paula Hammond, head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, told the Everett Herald that Earling's "notion is right. I think that as our economy recovers and our ports increase the work they're doing, we can only expect more train traffic. It's a good problem to work on."

Hammond and elected officials will hear more appeals as added rail traffic comes on line. A host of local governments and agencies are lined up to express concerns, and the impacts on road-rail congestion add up to billions of dollars. A long siding in Bellingham, which has been cited by transportation consultants as a likely impact if the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built, would cut access to a popular city park; a remedy would cost several millions. A suggested replacement of the Skagit River rail bridge, which appears to be primarily flood-related, is estimated at $500 million. Overpasses or underpasses to replace at-grade crossings cost in the tens of millions apiece.

Gibson Traffic Consultants of Seattle did studies of several Northwest Washington communities and found critical infrastructure needs in all. "While grade separation is desirable particularly because of the already complicated I-5 interchanges . . . these improvements are typically multi-million dollar solutions and funding is not yet planned," Gibson noted in its Mount Vernon study.

As if to underscore the issues of train traffic on small-city crossings, a BNSF southbound freight broke down in Mount Vernon Thursday morning, stalling traffic for 45 minutes on three streets, including busy College Way. The railroad blamed a locked wheel for the problem and closed College Way for 48 hours to fix a section of track. The College Way crossing had been under discussion for some time with the railroad, city officials said. Three downtown Mount Vernon crossings are at-grade and most susceptible to shutdowns.

WSDOT's current rail freight study, published in 2009, pegged state needs at $2 billion, calculated before the surge of energy-related rail traffic. The study concluded:

The greatest obstacle to implementation of this plan is the lack of a dedicated reoccurring funding source at both the state and federal levels. With 90% of the $2.0 billion in rail needs identified in this plan unfunded, the state will have to pursue federal funding, as well as boost state spending, and establish public-private partnerships to close the gap between available resources and freight rail needs.

WSDOT is working on a new rail-freight plan to be completed in 2013, and costs will certainly be higher. Federal regulations limit to 5 percent the amount that can be assessed to a railroad for safety or traffic improvements to crossings. The railroad is allowed to spend more if it wishes, but that rarely happens.

Contributions to mitigate the effects of added rail traffic could be part of an environmental review, particularly if done on an area-wide basis. Developers of export terminals, for instance, could be required to contribute to a pool to deal with major transportation problems caused or exacerbated by added rail traffic, a form of mitigation that likely is without precedent. BNSF has been upgrading its tracks in anticipation of the additional traffic, although it is quoted in the 2009 state survey as telling WSDOT, "From a freight perspective, BNSF believes sufficient capacity exists for the foreseeable future. Indeed, BNSF's planning staff sees nothing in this corridor as 'freight driven' with the current volumes at this time. Increased volumes may require capacity improvements."

Seemingly both BNSF and much of the public was caught unaware of the demand for energy in Asia and the intense push on the part of coal and oil producers to service that demand. But the pressure is real from all sides — including those who worry about global warming, life in the shadow of train horns and diesel fumes, and the very nature of the regions livability. Of necessity not everything can run at capacity without enormous costs in public funds and private lives. The process of sorting it out will take years.


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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.