Bellingham council to hear concerns over rail traffic from proposed coal terminal


railroad bellingham

South Bay Trail users wait for an empty coal train heading south through Boulevard Park along Bellingham's waterfront August 24, 2011.


BELLINGHAM - Whatcom County is not doing enough to hold SSA Marine accountable for the likely need for significant new railroad construction for a proposed shipping terminal, the City Council will hear Monday, June 9.

Shannon Wright, executive director of Communitywise Bellingham, will discuss her group's concerns over the plan to get 18 additional trains per day to and from the new Gateway Pacific Terminal that SSA proposes to build at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale.

Her presentation is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. council committee session in council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

For at least two years, Wright and other Communitywise Bellingham activists have argued that if Seattle-based SSA Marine succeeds in getting the permits needed to build the massive new bulk cargo terminal, BNSF Railway Co. will need to beef up the capacity of the rail bottleneck that now exists between Bow, just south of the county line, and Ferndale.

The capacity of that segment is 14 to 15 trains per day, according to a letter Wright sent to County Executive Jack Louws. Her letter -- provided to City Council members in advance of Monday's meeting - also cites state transportation studies as evidence that capacity on the line is sufficient for several decades if Gateway Pacific is not built. But the nine additional trains carrying coal and perhaps other bulk cargoes through Bellingham to Cherry Point, and returning to Wyoming and Montana coal mines via the same route, could not be accommodated without massive increases in rail capacity.

Citing earlier state studies of rail capacity as evidence, Wright has said that the most likely way for the railroad to add that capacity would be the construction of a new siding that would create a double track along much of the Bellingham waterfront, where trains could be parked for extended periods to allow other trains to pass.

But the construction and operation of such a siding would require the closing of Wharf Street - a key access point for the city waterfront. It also would block car access to Boulevard Park.

Railroad and SSA spokesmen have denied that Gateway Pacific rail traffic would require such a siding.

Wright argues that Whatcom County should require SSA to provide specific information about how the increase in rail traffic would be handled. If the increase in rail traffic due to Gateway Pacific can be expected to cause disruptions in Bellingham and elsewhere, SSA has a legal responsibility to take steps to minimize those disruptions, her letter states.

Unless Whatcom County takes the proper steps to ensure that SSA shoulders that responsibility, taxpayers could wind up footing the multimillion-dollar bill for railroad overpasses, Wright's letter states.

An earlier City Council resolution urged county and state officials to make sure rail traffic impacts on Bellingham get full scrutiny as the Gateway Pacific project moves through the lengthy permit process.

While those impacts are being studied in the environmental impact statement being prepared for the project, Communitywise activists say it would offer more certainty if SSA were required to spell out, in advance, what railroad expansion projects would have to be built to accommodate their new terminal.

Monday's council session on the issue is billed as informational only, and the City Council has no regulatory authority over the project. But Communitywise hopes that City Council will join them in a renewed effort to get Whatcom County to require SSA to submit additional information on railroad projects.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or . Read the Politics Blog at or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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