BELLINGHAM - BNSF Railway says it is committed to keeping Boulevard Park and the waterfront accessible if a proposed export terminal at Cherry Point brings up to 18 more coal trains a day through the city.
What remains unanswered is who is going to pay what could be tens of millions of dollars to connect the two sides of the main rail line in Bellingham.
BNSF still is not saying whether it would build a siding in Bellingham for trains to pull over and make room for the increased traffic brought by the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Company officials have said the idea has been under consideration for years, even before the coal terminal was proposed.
A study released by Communitywise Bellingham in 2012 said a siding from Fairhaven past Boulevard Park to the redevelopment area at the waterfront would be required to handle the increased coal train traffic. BNSF has disputed the study.
"We do understand community concerns, and we are committed to working with the city of Bellingham on future capacity improvements," wrote Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for BNSF, in a letter to The Bellingham Herald.
"There are no plans or discussions underway to cut off access to the park, and we remain very firm in our commitment to not allow this. Also, as we have been doing for several years, we will work to make sure any of our plans are compatible with the city's waterfront development," Wallace wrote.
In an interview on Thursday, Aug. 14, Wallace skirted around the question of whether BNSF would build a siding in Bellingham.
"There are no plans right now to build a siding," she said. "We have committed to not blocking (Boulevard) Park."
City Council member Michael Lilliquist, who has been outspoken in his concern about rail impacts to the city, said Wallace did not address who would pay for transportation improvements.
"Who will pay for both the rail capacity improvements and for the mitigations (such as overpasses) for other modes of transportation?" Lilliquist wrote Thursday, Aug. 14, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "Quite often, it is the taxpayers that end up shouldering the burden."
If the wait at railroad crossings becomes too long because of added delays, such as idling coal trains on the siding, overpasses may need to be built so vehicle traffic isn't disrupted. Lilliquist has said that would cost tens of millions of dollars.
BNSF must pay for rail improvements, Wallace said, but typically the company pays for only 5 percent of any road construction needed to ensure that street traffic keeps moving.
BNSF has a history of working with cities to find money for projects, Wallace said. This type of partnership is effective at attracting state and federal grants, she said.
Through its research, Communitywise Bellingham has concluded a 1.6-mile siding in Bellingham would be necessary to handle train traffic to Gateway Pacific Terminal. Also, empty coal trains would need to head up to Canada, over to Sumas and down the South Fork Valley to prevent a bottleneck in Bellingham, a Communitywise report says.
Nothing in BNSF's latest communication reassured Communitywise President Jack Delay in an email interview on Friday, Aug. 15.
"It is the same old generic stuff and does not answer any of the questions raised," Delay wrote.
Lilliquist wrote a letter for the City Council asking the county to require terminal applicant SSA Marine to spell out what rail improvements would be needed in Bellingham to accommodate the coal trains.
Tyler Schroeder, the county's project lead on the Gateway Pacific Terminal, said he is drafting a response. He will tell the city that its concern over rail traffic will be addressed in the environmental impact statement that is now underway. That report will take more than a year to complete and isn't expected until late 2015 at the soonest.
Schroeder said the council's letter implied that rail impacts within the city would not be part of the statement unless rail plans are specified in advance. But this is not correct, he said. The statement will include modeling of the railroad traffic the terminal would generate across the state, including in Bellingham.
"The county shares those concerns about rail impacts from the Gateway Pacific Terminal process," Schroeder said.