It is a warm afternoon in spring and Boulevard Park is full. Kids splash at the beach, couples stroll across the bridges and a group of runners zips along the waterfront. All the outside tables at Woods Coffee are filled. When the weather warms up in Whatcom County, everyone gets out.
But what will happen to one of Whatcom County's most treasured and frequented parks if the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal port is built? The developers state clearly that the terminal would add 18 train trips a day through Bellingham - including 16 coal trains. Gateway Pacific Terminal's 18 trains on top of the 10 to 12 trains we already experience would bring big changes to our waterfront.
This isn't news. Many already know that Gateway Pacific Terminal would more than double train traffic through Whatcom County. What few are aware of, however, are the profound changes it would mean for Boulevard Park:
The only vehicle entrance would be permanently closed to cars and pedestrians;
A new, second track spanning the entire length of the park would be built along the bay side of the current track, designed for trains to pull over, idle and wait;
The new track would likely encroach on small, popular beaches;
The current South Bay Trail access to the park would permanently close for bicycles, runners and pedestrians.
How do we know this? Washington State studies and independent expert reviews show that we can't add 18 more trains a day to this area without a second track to double capacity. Building this new, second track creates a "siding" that functions like a pull-off area on a single-lane road. State documents identify the best location for this new siding as starting at the Amtrak station in Fairhaven, running through Boulevard Park and ending near Central Avenue downtown. Because trains would be idling on this parallel track for extended periods each day, all existing roads and trails that currently cross the tracks would close permanently.
What could our community do about these changes to Boulevard Park if the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal port is built? We could recover some lost access with new overpasses, a parking garage and redesigning the planned overwater pedestrian bridge from the park toward downtown to handle emergency vehicles. As matters stand, however, we the taxpayers - not the Gateway Pacific Terminal, not BNSF Railway-would have to foot the hefty bill. Under federal law, BNSF is responsible for just 5 percent of the costs. Covering the other 95 percent would mean raising taxes, diverting current funding, or some combination thereof. Costs of projects like these could easily exceed tens of millions of dollars.
Gateway Pacific Terminal is on record as unwilling to pay for any rail impacts outside the terminal site. This has left many wondering how much of the terminal's expense might fall to local communities and taxpayers.
Fortunately, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County are taking a closer look at this situation. The city has requested that the agencies overseeing the Gateway Pacific Terminal application study any new tracks and their impacts. The county also plans to contract experts to study Gateway Pacific Terminal's rail needs and impacts in Whatcom County.
Gateway Pacific Terminal says it isn't fair to put these expenses on them, speculating that, "the trains are coming anyway," headed for British Columbia. This is a favorite Gateway Pacific Terminal talking point that has gotten some traction, despite the facts. We could see some increase in coal train traffic to B.C. in the coming years, though this assumes an entire series of highly speculative events occur. Gateway Pacific Terminal, on the other hand, guarantees more than doubling of current train traffic through Whatcom County in just a few short years.
There are many unanswered questions about train traffic in Whatcom County. Would more than one new track be needed? Would some trains go through an inland route, and if so, what are those impacts? Who will pay?
Whether your concern is higher taxes or the demise of waterfront access, your voice can make a difference. Over decades, this community has worked together to build Boulevard Park and make improvements such as the Taylor Street dock. We can also work together now to protect these assets - and our checkbooks. Encourage our local officials to remain vigilant on this critical issue.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shannon Wright is the executive director of Communitywise Bellingham, which advocates for our community's economy, health and livelihood in relation to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal project. Full citations can be viewed at communitywisebellingham.org/gpt-and-boulevard-park.