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Originally published June 29, 2013 at 4:29 PM | Page modified June 30, 2013 at 11:23 AM

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Coal trains raise concerns in congested cities

Plans to export western coal to Asia would increase freight traffic on rail lines that pass through the state’s most populated areas

Seattle Times staff reporter

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MARYSVILLE, Snohomish County —

On a midweek afternoon, the piercing blasts of a locomotive whistle announce the approach of a freight train and the closure of Fourth Street, a key artery that runs through this city north of Seattle.

The train carries more than 100 cars of coal bound for a British Columbia export terminal. As the freight cars cross the four-lane roadway, motorists are backed up for blocks. West of the tracks, the traffic snarl reaches Interstate 5, where vehicles clog an offramp and stack up onto the freeway.

The Fourth Street crossing is one of 17 roads that trains cross as they move through Marysville. The traffic jams they induce are a daily headache for motorists, and a problem for first responders, who sometimes find their routes blocked by trains.

The gridlock could get a lot worse.

A new coal export terminal proposed for Cherry Point north of Bellingham — if operating at maximum capacity — could increase the railroad traffic from its current level of up to 18 trains each day to more than 30.

“This would really lock our city down,” said Jon Nehring, the mayor of Marysville.

In the Pacific Northwest, opposition to the export terminals has become a rallying cry for environmentalists who cite coal’s contributions to global climate change.

But in Marysville, Seattle, and other communities, many people are focused on the impacts of the increased train traffic required to ship coal to the Whatcom County export terminal and a second one at Longview in Cowlitz County.

The rail freight system — vital to the state’s economy — now moves more than 115 million tons of grain, fuel, timber and other cargo over tracks that cross public roadways in more than 2,600 locations.

To maintain and expand the rail network, BNSF Railway, the largest railroad operating in the state, spends $100 million annually, according to company officials.

But the costs of building new overpasses and other projects to reduce road-grade crossings are typically largely borne by taxpayers.

Railroad officials say such investments in Washington — and across the country — are lagging.

“Whether any of these (coal export) facilities get built or not, freight volumes are still going to grow ... and these infrastructure conflicts still need to be dealt with,” says Steve Forsberg, a spokesman for BNSF. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something like this to really get people to focus.”

State Transportation Department officials have identified 29 crossing and highway intersections, most of them in Western Washington and Spokane County, that may need improvements to accommodate increased coal traffic. But that money often is tough to come by from cash strapped governments.

In Seattle, for example, the city in 2007 estimated a $75 million to $80 million cost of building an overpass that would eliminate what planners called a “serious choke point,” a railroad crossing at Lander Street in the Sodo District. That’s near where investor Chris Hansen has proposed to build a new arena as a centerpiece of a new entertainment district, but funding for that overpass has never been secured.

In Marysville, a community that has more than doubled in size over the past decade, city officials have lobbied the Legislature to approve funding for a $60 million project that would give residents a new route to I-5 without crossing the train tracks.

Local officials are unable to limit the numbers of trains that run through their towns. Nehring, the mayor, said the project would help motorists cope with increasing numbers of coal trains that BNSF may move through town.

“One of the things that’s become really evident, working on this process over the last couple years, is that the railroad is really powerful. There is really not much at the local level you can do,” Nehring said.

“They certainly aren’t bashful about telling you that if we want to do this (run more trains), we can.”

Roller-coaster decade

For railroads, the past 10 years have been a roller coaster, with freight volumes steadily increasing in the early part of the decade, then dropping off sharply in 2007 as the Great Recession took hold. Since then, freight train traffic has gradually rebounded, though still below the pre-recession peak.

During the last six months of 2012, anywhere from 120 to 146 trains moved across the BNSF lines in Washington on a typical day, according to Forsberg, the company’s spokesman. The number of freight trains fluctuates, but on a weekday that count included 42 trains offering scheduled passenger service.

If both the Longview and Cherry Point terminals are able to operate at their maximum capacities, the daily freight traffic in Washington state would increase by more than 30 freight trains a day.

In the years ahead, rail freight traffic also is expected to be boosted by a surge in trains carrying North Dakota crude oil to Washington terminals and refineries.

BNSF train officials say there is a possibility that some freight traffic could occasionally traverse the Cascades on a rail line that runs over Stevens Pass north of Seattle.

But if the coal shipments follow the typical route for heavy freight loads, these trains would arrive in Washington in the Spokane area, then swing south, and travel through the Columbia River Gorge to avoid the steep grade over the Cascade passes,

Some of these trains would stop in Longview in southwest Washington, where Millennium Bulk Terminals is cleaning up an abandoned aluminum smelter site in preparation for a proposed $600 million coal terminal.

The rest of the trains — up to nine loaded trains each day — would rumble north to the Gateway Pacific terminal proposed at Cherry Point, which would be on a stretch of coastline north of Bellingham.

En route to Cherry Point, these trains would travel through the state’s most populous and congested region. That has prompted some city officials in the Puget Sound area to suggest Longview might be a better place to export coal to Asia.

“We believe it would affect less communities,” said Nehring, Marysville’s mayor.

But backers of the Cherry Point terminal say their site has a key advantage — a deep water port that can service Capesize ships — the largest class of freighters.

These Capesize freighters can carry more than twice the loads of smaller Panamax vessels that would maneuver up the Columbia River shipping canal to the shallower waters of the proposed Longview terminal.

Cherry Point developers say a deep water port can mean substantial savings in maritime freight rates.

“This is the whole reason for being at Cherry Point,” said Bob Watters, a senior vice president of SSA Marine, the terminal developer.

Developers of the Longview terminal say there also are advantages to the smaller Panamax vessels, which can serve more ports in Asia and thus offer more flexible service.

“We don’t see this as a make-or-break issue at all, ” said Ken Miller, president of Millenium Bulk Terminals in Longview.

Complicated review

Both the Longview and Cherry Point projects must go through a complicated environmental review process involving federal, state and county officials. Developers say their projects would create thousands of new jobs, generating millions of dollars in next tax revenue, and they chafe at the length of the process compared to reviews of other port developments.

Once the reviews are finally over it’s still unclear whether Asian markets will be strong enough to make these exports profitable. Developers are confident that demand will be strong. But currently, international coal prices are more than 30 percent below their 2011 peak and that has put a chill on development of new export terminals in Australia, according to Clark Williams-Derry, of Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has examined the export terminal proposals.

In Washington, the Cherry Point terminal has moved the furthest through the permitting process, with the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Ecology and Whatcom County scheduled to launch an environmental impact study in the months ahead.

State officials already have begun to outline some of the effects they see from increased train traffic.

State Department of Transportation officials cite 12 state highway railroad crossings and 17 highway intersections and interchanges that already experience delays under existing train volumes. Many “may not be able to adequately absorb additional delays without mitigation measures,” according to an agency letter written in January.

That letter also said that delays caused by trains crossing State Route 104 in front of the Edmonds ferry terminal already have forced the cancellation of two sailings per day to maintain on-time schedules. If the coal train traffic reached maximum capacity, DOT officials suggested that study examine the possible relocation of the ferry terminal as well as other options.

Railroad safety issues are watchdogged by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Nationwide and in Washington, accidents involving trains, people and vehicles have declined dramatically since a peak in the early 1970s. Still, within the past decade, there have been some 40 accidents a year on average, and 7 fatalities in Washington.

Increasingly, these accidents have occurred in Western Washington, near population centers. Since coal trains bound for Cherry Point would move through this region, “It is likely that without proper planning the increase in train traffic could result in an upturn in the number of railroad crossing accidents and fatalities in Washington state,” wrote David Danner, the commission’s executive director, in a letter earlier this year.

The commission also recently found fault with railroad maintenance efforts. Earlier this year, the commission fined BNSF $55,000 for being “neither cooperative nor responsive” in its effort to correct surfacing problems at seven railroad crossings in Whatcom County.

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the utilities commission and DOT requested that the environmental review examine all the improvements to the state rail or highway systems needed to accommodate increased coal train traffic.

But railroad officials balk at expanding the environmental review process for the Cherry Point terminal to include a statewide examination of the effects of increased coal train traffic.

In a letter to reviewers, a BSNF official argued that such an approach would violate federal law, and the review should be limited to the rail effects within Whatcom County.

An Army Corps official, in June testimony to Congress, agreed with that approach, stating at a congressional hearing earlier this month that there was no legal authority for the agency to study the impacts of coal trains in rail belt communities.

But officials of the state Department of Ecology, a partner in the review process, say they do have that authority under Washington law. In the weeks ahead, they are expected to announce their own studies of coal trains impacts on communities.

That prospect alarms proponents of the terminals.

“This is uncharted territory which, if set as a precedent for state policy, could grind future port and industrial job growth to a halt,” said a statement released by the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a pro-terminal group.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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