BELLINGHAM - City Council members plan to send a letter to Whatcom County officials urging them to make sure that railroad impacts in the city are accounted for in the environmental study of a proposed Cherry Point coal terminal.
At a Monday, June 9, committee meeting, council members quickly agreed to send such a letter after hearing a presentation from representatives of Communitywise Bellingham, a citizens' group that has focused on rail impacts and economic issues related to the coal terminal.
Communitywise Executive Director Shannon Wright told council members that her group remains convinced that if SSA Marine succeeds in getting the permits to construct the Gateway Pacific Terminal shipping pier at Cherry Point, the estimated addition of 18 trains per day through Bellingham will mean the construction of a new siding stretching from downtown to Fairhaven. If such a siding were built, it would disrupt access to a redeveloping city waterfront, as well as to Boulevard Park.
BNSF Railway Co. officials have said they could accommodate the train traffic to Gateway Pacific without building such a siding, but Wright said she is far from convinced.
"Bellingham is located in the center of a rail chokepoint that limits the daily capacity along the BNSF mainline to Cherry Point," Wright told the council.
Wright said Whatcom County should require SSA Marine to spell out exactly how the increase in train traffic would be accommodated. That information should have been included in SSA's original permit application to the county, but it is not too late to require it now, Wright added.
As Wright explained it, county development regulations would require SSA to take steps to minimize any economic impact on the city that would result from construction of a new rail siding through the city as a result of the new coal terminal. But if SSA is not required to list the needed railroad projects inside Bellingham as part of the Gateway Pacific review process, there is a risk that the costs of overpasses to get vehicle traffic across a new rail siding could be borne by taxpayers, Wright said.
Jack Delay, Communitywise board chairman, told the council that a March 2014 Washington state rail plan identifies the current rail capacity through Bellingham as about 14.4 trains per day, although the actual capacity may be less based on actual operating speeds. That 14.4-train capacity is enough to accommodate other anticipated rail traffic through the city for the next 20 years, Delay said, but it will be hopelessly inadequate if Gateway Pacific adds 18 more trains.
Council members didn't need much convincing, nor did Mayor Kelli Linville. Mayor and council agreed to put their heads together to draft a letter to Whatcom County officials urging them to make sure that any coal-terminal-related rail projects through the city are identified in advance, so that the city does not have to bear the costs of overpasses or other measures to get around sidings with parked trains that block street crossings.
Council member Michael Lilliquist said BNSF and SSA should be required "to come forward with information to tell me why this is not a nightmare scenario."