BELLINGHAM - More than two years after raising the concern, city officials still don't know whether an extra railroad track would be built along Boulevard Park and the waterfront to accommodate additional trains for a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.
City Council member Michael Lilliquist drafted a letter for the full council's consideration on Monday, July 21, that would renew the city's request for more information about the additional rail traffic that would result from the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
The terminal, now tentatively scheduled to open in 2019 if approved, would ship up to 48 million tons of coal a year to overseas markets. Up to nine trains a day would deliver coal from mines in Wyoming and Montana to Cherry Point, with nine empty trains returning daily through Bellingham.
BNSF Railway has told the city not to assume a railroad siding would be built through Bellingham to handle the extra trains. That was two years ago, and Lilliquist said he has heard nothing since to convince him otherwise.
"We have received no reassurances that that won't happen," Lilliquist said in an interview Friday, July 18. "All existing evidence is that when capacity is reached, that will be the preferred solution."
Council will discuss the draft letter at meetings at 1:10 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. on Monday at City Hall, 210 Lottie St. The draft has at least one new wrinkle compared to a similar letter delivered to Whatcom County officials in 2012: the mention of more trains delivering crude oil to Whatcom refineries.
"Travel times for freight trains along the Bellingham segment may be longer, and the capacity constraints more severe, than previously supposed," the draft says.
The letter would ask the county to require the terminal proponent, SSA Marine, to account for train-traffic impacts and any requirements for new rail construction in Bellingham, so that it could be included in a 13-month environmental review of the terminal that's about to begin.
County officials might in any case be required to do this according to their own code, the letter says.
The applicant of a major project must show that it won't "impose uncompensated requirements" for new services or utilities, the letter says.
The code was written, Lilliquist said, "to protect the taxpayers from what could be insurmountable financial burdens." More tracks could require the construction of overpasses, which could cost tens of millions of dollars, Lilliquist said.