BELLINGHAM - City Council has agreed to postpone action on a resolution that calls for close study of possible disruptions that could result from increased rail traffic through the city if SSA Marine's proposed Cherry Point coal and bulk cargo terminal is built.
At a Monday, July 2, committee meeting, council members said they had heard from a number of citizens and groups who had offered additions to the draft resolution that Council President Terry Bornemann had drawn up with city attorneys.
Bornemann urged quick passage of the resolution, but council members Jack Weiss and Cathy Lehman said they wanted to take time to study the additions proposed by others.
Lehman said those additions included strengthened language about the importance of the city's connection to its waterfront, the potential impact on salmon, and other impacts on quality of life in the city.
Mayor Kelli Linville and city planner Steve Sundin told council members that they need not include all possible concerns in the resolution before them.
Sundin noted that the city will have to resubmit its issues of concern later anyhow, once the process of taking comments on the scope of the environmental impact study that will be conducted on the Gateway Pacific Terminal project gets under way.
But a majority of council members made it clear that they wanted to consider changes and additions to Bornemann's draft, and take up the resolution again at their next meeting July 22.
Among other things, the proposed resolution would endorse a so-called "programmatic environmental impact statement" that would look at the total potential impact of all the proposed coal and bulk cargo terminals in the Northwest. Some shipping and business interests have opposed such a study, saying it would set a precedent that could impose huge new regulatory burdens on industrial development projects.
But environmental groups contend that the true environmental costs of the projects can't be measured if each proposal is studied separately.
The proposed resolution also calls for review of the potential Bellingham impacts that would result from the likely increase in coal train traffic through the city if Gateway Pacific is built. It also stipulates that the cost of any transportation improvement projects required to accommodate that rail traffic should not be borne by the city.
In a related matter, the council heard a report from Todd Carlson, regional transportation planning manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation, about his agency's concerns related to increased rail traffic from Gateway Pacific and other coal and bulk cargo terminals now on the drawing board.
While the state DOT has no jurisdiction over freight rail, it does oversee state highways, ferries and Amtrak passenger rail service. Carlson noted that the study of transportation impacts from a proposed project traditionally don't go far beyond the site of that project.
But this time is different. Carlson said state transportation planners see many possible impacts on highways and ferries that could result from increased delays at rail crossings.
"We're going to be pushing, as I think a lot of folks will, to look a little further than the site itself," Carlson said. "It's going to be a difficult issue to struggle with."
Carlson said he was less concerned about Amtrak, because BNSF Railway Co. already has a contractual obligation to accommodate two passenger trains per day between Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle, on the western Washington line that serves Cherry Point. While additional passenger rail service is a long-term goal, Carlson said there is no immediate likelihood of that because major improvements would have to be made on the Canadian portion of that line to accommodate the added passenger trains. That remains a long-term proposition.