A new study purports to add to mounting evidence that more coal trains will further strain already taxed rail lines in the Pacific Northwest.
The study was both commissioned and conducted by groups who promote the interests of farmers and ranchers in the West. A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway had serious reservations about the study. Even so, the study's authors insist the results are objective and should demand the attention of those who will decide the fate of proposed coal terminals in Oregon and Washington, including the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point.
Once at full capacity, Gateway Pacific would bring an estimated 18 additional trains daily through Bellingham.
The 60-page study, released Wednesday, July 11, was commissioned by the Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Councils. The study considers how a tenfold spike in coal trains passing through the Northwest would affect the delivery of other commodities sharing the same tracks, including shipping containers, grains, and oil headed to Skagit and Whatcom County refineries.
The study also warned that cities and counties may be on the hook for expensive improvements to roads, bridges and other projects required to accommodate additional train traffic.
The consultant hired to conduct the study was Terry Whiteside, who works on wheat and barley commissions in several western states.
Despite the economic interest, both the Western Organization of Resource Councils and the consultant have in the study, Whiteside maintained that it was objective and not filtered through the lens of the farmers he works for.
"It's not designed to have a lens at all," he said. "There was no pre-look (by wheat and barley producers) at what we were doing."
Whiteside suggested that the results speak loud and clear: The number of coal trains passing through Spokane to the ports will increase from about five a day now to more than 60 per day by 2022.
"Make no mistake about it, this is a huge, huge increase in volume like we've never seen before in this part of the world," he said.
The market is expected to be dominated by Warren Buffet's BNSF Railway because it has the shortest route to the coast and the most competitive prices, according to report co-author Gerald Fauth.
In fact, the report assumes all of the coal will leave its point of origin at Powder River Basin on BNSF tracks - just one of the flaws in the study, according to BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg.
"That's completely off base," she said. "It doesn't make any market sense at all."
Lundsberg challenged the report's claim that the Stevens Pass rail line - the most likely route for coal headed to Cherry Point - is almost at capacity now, as Fauth said in a conference call with reporters. She said only her company would know that.
"He never talked to us about our capacity," she said.
Lundsberg said the increased traffic doesn't necessarily mean more congestion. BNSF has spent more than $36 billion in capital improvements since 2000, she said.
"I can assure you BNSF will not underinvest to accommodate our customers' businesses, and our past investments are proof of that," Lundsberg said.
Fauth and Whiteside said the local impacts could be severe for local and state governments dealing with the increased rail traffic.
If the railroads won't pay for needed improvements to rail crossings, governments could face costs of hundreds of millions of dollars, they said.
READ THE STUDY
Find the full study at heavytrafficahead.org.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2261.