Communities throughout the Puget Sound region would need overpasses and underpasses costing $50 million to $200 million each to prevent traffic from being stopped by a proposed 18 daily coal trains, a government report says.
Elected officials on the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) sounded the alarm Thursday about the magnitude of traffic delays, and the hazards of more trains and people crossing paths.
The study, requested last year by then-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, might be viewed as a political tool by environmentalists whose true priority is to fight global warming — and indeed, King County Executive Dow Constantine brought up climate change, at the council’s meeting in Seattle. However, many of the politicians, Constantine included, also said a public-works program is needed to improve dozens of train crossings, even if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Ferndale in Whatcom County isn’t built.
Non-coal rail traffic from agriculture, containers and other goods will nearly double by 2035, the study says.
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The report was released the same morning that five cars of a 102-car oil train derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Three cars contained oil, but didn’t spill.
Two to three oil trains daily run through the city, carrying flammable crude from the plains of North Dakota. The coal shipments, destined for Asia, are less combustible and are coated, to significantly reduce dust.
Traffic effects matter to the PSRC because it is a planning agency, whose board allocates federal transportation funds throughout Snohomish, Kitsap, King and Pierce counties.
Some highlights from the coal-train report:
• The terminal, which would be run by Seattle-based SSA Marine, would create jobs within Whatcom County. And if BNSF Railway adds rail capacity for the coal terminal, that would likely improve conditions for other international trade, the report says. Meanwhile, proponents have issued estimates of 430 jobs for terminal operators, railroad employees, and ship crews, and 2,100 construction jobs.
• Nine full trains would travel north and nine empty trains would return south per day, each 1.6 miles long — but the empties are light enough to return to Wyoming and Montana on mountain passes.
• Marysville, with seven crossings, would absorb some of the worst effects. East-west Highway 528, which links the growing city to Interstate 5 and the Tulalip Reservation, is now blocked by “gate-down time” of 32 minutes a day. By 2035, growth in non-coal cargo would add 27 minutes, and coal trains 86 minutes, the study predicts — a total of nearly 2½ hours. Coal trains alone might create 38 minutes blockage in Kent and 55 minutes in Seattle.
• The report lists 34 crossings that would benefit from grade separation or other retrofits. A total of 101 crossings were studied from Steilacoom to Stanwood, of which 70 sit on the north-south mainline, 26 in the Stevens Pass corridor including Monroe, and five in the Stampede Pass route including Maple Valley.
Constantine said: “It borders on madness to dig up a big chunk of North America, tie up traffic across the train route, and then ship off that coal to another country so they can bury us economically, and accelerate the decline of the global climate.”
Terry Finn, of the PSRC’s Transportation Policy Board, said in a letter that coal already moves across the state without incident.
“Project opponents, failing to raise outcry enough over coal alone, have resorted to a scare campaign about projected rail impacts,” said Finn, former government-affairs director for BNSF Railway. He said rail is “the greenest possible way” to move cargo of many kinds through the nation’s most trade-dependent state.
Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant pointed to competition from British Columbia, spending heavily to modernize its ports. “Jobs, regardless of whether we build this terminal, depend on increasing rail capacity of the Pacific Northwest,” he said.
PSRC’s chairwoman, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, said from her perspective, the report isn’t a political lever for coal opponents, but rather a collection of useful facts, that would support requests for federal, state, or local money.