BELLINGHAM - The environmental study of the impacts from a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point will include a thorough review of how - or whether - trains coming and going to the terminal will fit on the tracks in Whatcom County and elsewhere in the state. County Executive Jack Louws made this clear in a letter to Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and the City Council on Wednesday, Aug. 27.
BNSF Railway also wrote the city to say Gateway Pacific Terminal would not require a second set of tracks along the existing line between Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham. The Aug. 25 letter from BNSF Director of Strategic Development F.E. Kalb, Jr. repeated statements BNSF had provided to The Bellingham Herald over the past two weeks.
The terminal, if approved, would export up to 48 million tons of coal a year to overseas markets, starting in 2019.
Louws' letter indicated the environmental study of the coal terminal would determine whether a 1.6-mile siding in Bellingham would be needed to accommodate up to 18 more trains daily through the county. The potential siding has concerned city leaders and residents because it likely would disrupt vehicle traffic and access to Boulevard Park and the new Waterfront District.
It appears BNSF officials have pre-empted the study and made a decision on the Bellingham siding.
"There are no plans to build a railroad siding in the city of Bellingham to accommodate trains for a proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, nor will the terminal need such a siding," BNSF's letter said.
Railroad expansions on the Seattle-to-Blaine line would be better placed "in areas other than Bellingham," the letter said.
BNSF plans to double-track eight miles of line north and south of Ferndale, in addition to the six-mile-long Custer-to-Cherry Point spur.
Council member Michael Lilliquist received BNSF's letter as welcome news.
"If a new siding is not built along Bellingham's waterfront, that would save the taxpayers at least a hundred million dollars in overpasses and crossings, and boost redevelopment potential for the Waterfront District," Lilliquist said in an emailed response to BNSF's letter.
Communitywise Bellingham Executive Director Shannon Wright said the railroad would need to be expanded elsewhere in the county if not in Bellingham.
"While this BNSF letter to the city is potentially welcome news for Bellingham residents, it leaves open very concerning and unanswered questions for neighborhoods to the north, south and east," Wright said.
Wright also pressed for more openness from BNSF.
"If BNSF can declare with certainty that it can add (18) trains a day ... without a new waterfront siding in Bellingham, then it stands to reason that the corporation can disclose where those trains will be routed instead, and where exactly the new rail sidings will be built."
Louws' letter to city officials was intended to assure them that railroad expansions don't need to be specified in advance for the county to do an effective review of impacts, using "very complex rail modeling."
Conclusions drawn from this modeling, including where and how many tracks need to be built, would inform a final decision on BNSF and terminal proponent SSA Marine's applications, Louws said.
Lilliquist saw Louws' letter, coupled with the statements from BNSF, as a positive step in the review of the coal terminal proposal.
"We are hearing that the issues that matter to Bellingham will be taken seriously. It's good to have this in writing," Lilliquist said. "The added transparency will make it easier to advocate on behalf of Bellingham in later stages of the process."