The Gateway Pacific terminal proposed for Cherry Point could eventually add up to 18 additional freight trains a day running through Seattle. By 2026, those trains could increase the total time that crossing gates are down by 67 to 183 minutes each day at eight intersections analyzed in a study completed last year for Mayor Mike McGinn, an outspoken opponent of coal trains.
But the study — by Parametrix — found that additional delays caused by coal trains would not appear to cross the threshold that would warrant building new overpasses. Instead, a number of smaller improvements to crossing could be undertaken, the study concluded.
To conduct the study, Parametrix sent researchers out to monitor the four train crossings in the Sodo District and another four along the waterfront near Belltown. They are some of the prominent crossings among the 198 public and private roads crossed by railroad lines within Seattle.
The researchers found that, on a typical day, freight trains move across Sodo District roads some 65 to 85 times each day and more than 50 times a day cross the other roads. The longest lineups of motorists occur during rush hour on the roads near Belltown, when up to 75 or 80 vehicles may line up while waiting for trains.
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During the study, the longest track closure was 11.6 minutes on Broad Street.
These track closures often occur when local freight trains, which originate in Seattle, are crossing the roads. These trains may linger on the rails as they are built up in yards, sometimes triggering complaints to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.
“We get calls from people, and will follow up and ask the railroad if they can break the train up a little bit more and let people through,” said David Pratt, an assistant director of the state commission.
Coal trains already pass through Seattle as they head north to a Canadian export terminal.
Based on observations of those trains, Parametrix researchers forecast that each coal train bound for Cherry Point would take from four to six minutes to traverse a road crossing.
Developers of the Cherry Point terminal say that the Parametrix study may overstate the numbers of additional trains that will result from terminal operations.
Some trains, once emptied of coal, might return to Western coal fields over a Stevens Pass route that would bypass Seattle
Also, coal trains that already move through Seattle en route to British Columbia could be redirected to Cherry Point, according to Bob Watters, senior vice president of SSA Marine, which is developing Cherry Point. That could reduce the net increase in coal trains.
Yet the British Columbia terminal also has expansion plans. If markets are strong, the Cherry Point trains might all be additional freight, so these trains would be in addition to the Canadian-bound trains.