Bellingham meeting: Money for railroad overpasses nowhere to be found

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 20, 2014 

Tanker Cars PAD

Tanker train cars head south crossing Harris Avenue near the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Bellingham Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Overpasses to separate vehicle traffic from railroad tracks would help prevent many of the headaches caused by increased rail shipments, but there is little or no money available for such costly overpass projects.

That was one of the messages that the Washington State Transportation Commission heard Tuesday, May 20, at an all-day session in City Council chambers. The seven-member group collects information on state transportation issues and makes recommendations to the State Legislature, among other things.

Paul Roberts, board secretary of the Association of Washington Cities, told commission members that state and federal governments have shown little interest in stepping up to pay for "grade separations," or overpasses that eliminate the traffic backups that can result when trains block busy streets and roads. A single railroad overpass can cost $15 million to $30 million, Roberts said, and few local governments can come up with that kind of cash.

What about the railroads? Roberts said that industry's practice has been to chip in no more than 5 percent of the cost.

"This is not a functional model," Roberts said. "It is in the interests of the railroads, as well as the cities, to have freight move efficiently."

Crude oil shipments to two oil refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties are already adding to traffic on the BNSF Railway Co. system, and the other two refineries are taking steps to develop rail delivery systems, too. If the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal shipping facility is eventually built at Cherry Point, it could add as many as 18 additional trains per day on the BNSF mainline through Bellingham and Ferndale, including both loaded trains and returning empties.

Roberts said cities all along the rail lines are concerned about the additional volume of train traffic, as well as the dangers from derailments of highly volatile North Dakota crude oil.

Johan Hellman, executive director of state government affairs for BNSF, defended the railroad's policies and performance. Big though it may be - with 35,000 miles of track and 42,000 employees - BNSF is in no position to take on a substantial portion of the cost of overpasses at thousands of railroad crossings along its lines, Hellman said.

Hellman said BNSF agrees with local governments on the need for more state and federal investment on rail crossing improvements as part of a region-wide transportation plan, instead of the current approach that involves local governments competing for limited amounts of grant money.

"We need to have a better way of going about it than communities competing with each other," Hellman said. "We don't like it any more than local communities do."

The railroad has been willing to pay more than a 5 percent share on some projects if they are of direct benefit to the railroad, he added.

The railroad does invest large sums in track safety improvements, Hellman said. Overall, BNSF expects to spend a record $5 billion on system upgrades in 2014, including about $235 million in Washington state. Among other things, that includes the cost of 500 new locomotives that are more efficient and less polluting, he added.

Although railroads typically don't own the rail cars they haul, BNSF is breaking out of that business model by investing in a fleet of safer tank cars for crude oil transport, Hellman said.

On the crude oil train safety issue, state authority is limited, said David Byers, response program manager for spill prevention, preparedness and response at the Washington Department of Ecology.

The state's existing spill response program was designed for tanker ships and pipelines, Byers said. That program is now being retooled to be prepared for oil train incidents. While there have always been hazardous cargoes on trains, the 100-car oil trains represent a much larger potential volume in the event of an accident, he added.

If all the proposed oil train terminals are added to those already in operation, about 22 crude oil trains per day will be traveling across the state, Byers said. That figure includes Columbia River projects that would not affect Whatcom County.

Ecology is conducting a study of the gaps in the state response system that need to be filled, and that study should be ready for the State Legislature next year.

Byers also noted that as refineries get more of their petroleum supply by rail, and less by ship, the amount of money the state has available for spill response decreases. That's because the state collects a tax on each barrel of crude oil entering the state by ship, but there is no such tax on train shipments.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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