Tale of Two Cities: Coal, a train wreck for Burlington?

“Incredibly fragile,” is how cafe owner Brad Whaley descibes Burlington's historic downtown. Can it survive a coal train onslaught?
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Will coal kill Burlington?

“Incredibly fragile,” is how cafe owner Brad Whaley descibes Burlington's historic downtown. Can it survive a coal train onslaught?

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 The tipplers of long ago have been replaced by heavy industrial goods; the passenger depot is long gone and the railroad is on the verge of a coal and oil binge.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.

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“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?

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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.

“The biggest challenge for us is the public safety aspect,” Mayor Steve Sexton told me. Sexton’s constituents live east of the busy railroad tracks; the fire and police stations are west of the tracks. The major hospital is also west of the tracks, in Mount Vernon.

If the number of trains does double in the future, the city may need to build fire and police substations east of the tracks, which would be cheaper than constructing overpasses. A proposed rail overpass on Rio Vista Avenue could cost $40 million, Sexton says. Burlington’s entire city budget this year is $25 million.

Retail fuels Burlington. Between the auto mall, the big-box stores and Cascade Mall, which opened in 1989, Burlington leads Washington in sales taxes per capita. The city got $6.6 million in sales tax-income in 2012 and was on track for a $7 million take this year before the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapsed. For some perspective, that’s $6.6 million per year for a city with 8,470 citizens. Ferndale, population 12,000, gets $1.5 million in sales-tax revenue.

But while Burlington’s malls and big-box stores are a sales-tax bonanza, their flip side is lower wages. Burlington’s average annual family income is $47,512, compared to $52,831 in industrial Ferndale. The city's 15.8 percent poverty rate exceeds the statewide level (12.8 percent), and Burlington's home values and education level are below state averages.

In small cities such as Burlington, older, poorer residents are often the only ones left in old city cores which are ringed by more-affluent neighborhoods. Century-old train tracks run through these aging downtowns where merchants struggle to fix up the old brick facades and provide a personal touch lacking in big-box stores and franchise restaurants. 

Across the country, the same rail that used to serve local mills and farms has evolved into mile-and-a-half-long trains hauling coal and crude oil. Nearly 50 percent of rail freight in 2011 was coal or petroleum; since then the big increase has been in crude oil.

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The future is already coming to Northwest Washington; in November Tesoro at Anacortes welcomed its first 100-car train carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. The BP Refinery at Cherry Point plans to start importing Bakken crude by rail in 2014. 

Burlington isn’t the only small city bracing for a rise in rail traffic. In wealthy Edmonds, more trains will create a bottleneck at the one intersection in town where ferry, railroad and city streets converge. Marysville may be the hardest hit. It fading, 15-mile-long commercial strip parallels I-5 and the BNSF mainline so closely that rail overpasses (one solution to train-induced traffic jams) are very difficult to engineer.

Towns south of Everett already have twice as many trains per day as those to the north. Sumner looks somewhat like Burlington, with rail tracks bisecting this Pierce County city of 9,541. “We think there’s the potential for a long train to disrupt the town,” Mayor Dave Enslow told the state's Department of Ecology.

A huge public infrastructure bomb is coming down the tracks, bad enough if the coal terminals aren’t built, catastrophic to small communities if they are. Grade separations that keep trains, cars and pedestrians safely apart would eliminate the danger and congestion of at-grade crossings. But that means building overpasses or digging new roads under the tracks. Even for a small town, those are muilti-million dollar options. Local taxpayers can’t shoulder the burden alone and this type of project has no sex appeal at the state or federal level. The feds are busy pushing high-speed rail and state transportation priorities are always skewed to highways. 

The Washington Legislature is knotted-up over a transportation package that offers little relief for road-rail conflicts of the sort faced in Burlington and other trackside towns. Local officials appeal for “mitigation” through some type of charges to the coal companies, railways and terminal operators. They might also ask China to chip in since its thirst for coal is driving the process. 

From their modest single-story homes, Burlington folk can only watch. Ben and Donna Peden, preparing to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, stood on the porch of their Fairhaven Avenue home and summarized the comments they wrote to the officials who are reviewing the Gateway Pacific Terminal. With the added trains, they told me, “Burlington will just cease to exist as a functioning city.”

They may be right. Or a train boom may merely prolong the struggle of many historic downtowns battling changing tastes and times. More than a century ago, every little town wanted a rail line. But the numbers and size of the trains have grown even as the downtowns have shrunk. Coal and oil trains threaten to accelerate that trend.

For Burlington and other towns along the line that will service Cherry Point's Gateway Pacific Terminal, the result could be a mercy killing or a tragedy, depending on your point of view. 

Click here for Part One of the series, on Ferndale.



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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.