Bellingham rail traffic a big issue as freight terminal moves ahead

As the Gateway Pacific bulk cargo terminal moves into the permitting process next month, attention is likely to focus on the amount of rail traffic that would roll through Bellingham to the deep-water pier at Cherry Point.

Besides the noise and traffic disruption in the city, the added freight traffic - whether it be Rocky Mountain coal or eastern Washington wheat - could create rail system capacity limitations that would pose challenges for expanded passenger rail service between here and Seattle or Vancouver, B.C.

Proponents acknowledge that the terminal, operating at a possible capacity of 25 million tons per year, would need five trainloads of cargo per day to keep it busy, and those five trains would go back the way they came to pick up the next load.

The developer of the project is Seattle-based SSA Marine, a privately held firm that started out as Bellingham Stevedoring Co. in the 1940s and has grown to be a global shipping powerhouse. Goldman Sachs is a major investor in Carrix Inc., SSA's parent firm.

Craig Cole, the former Whatcom County councilman and state legislator who serves as spokesman for SSA, said the additional trains would not add up to unprecedented levels of rail traffic for Bellingham. Cole said it would mean a return to rail traffic levels of a few years ago, when the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and paper mill and chlorine plant was operating, and Canada was shipping massive quantities of lumber through Bellingham to California.

"We're looking at something that is within historical norms," Cole said.

Between 24 and 28 trains per day now go through the city, Cole said.

Cole and SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters spoke recently at a Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry breakfast to stress the economic benefits of the project: 1,700 construction jobs, 280 permanent jobs, $10 million a year in state and local tax revenue.

While it is widely assumed that the main purpose of such a facility would be feeding the Chinese appetite for Rocky Mountain coal for electric power generation, Watters said SSA is interested in other cargoes, such as wheat and potash.

"There's a huge demand right now for all these different cargoes," Watters said. "We have to be able to haul a lot of different products."

Watters said that after years of planning, SSA expects to start the two-year process of obtaining permits for the $500 million project in March 2011. If the permitting process can be completed in two years, construction would take another two years, with operations beginning in January 2015 at the soonest.

A key feature of the permitting process will be the preparation of an environmental impact statement, and that document is expected to include analysis of the impacts of added rail traffic. Bruce Agnew, policy director of Cascadia Center in Seattle, said the Whatcom Council of Governments has hired Cascadia to study the likely increases in rail traffic from Everett to Vancouver in the years ahead, and that report should be ready by April 1, 2011.

Trains loaded with Rocky Mountain coal already roll through Bellingham on their way to the Deltaport coal terminal at Roberts Bank, B.C. Agnew said Bellingham likely will see an increase in coal trains even if the Cherry Point project is never built, because Deltaport has been expanding its capacity.

He also noted that while coal may be the most likely cargo for SSA's terminal today, it won't be open for business for four or five years, and nobody knows what cargoes will be most in demand at that point.

The Cascadia study will estimate what kind of rail capacity improvements would be necessary to provide enough room for added cargo shipments, as well as expanded passenger rail service, such as a third Amtrak daily run from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., via Bellingham, and the extension of Sounder commuter rail north of its current Everett endpoint.

Cargo shipments to Cherry Point could turn out to be a positive for passenger rail service, Agnew said. The value of the added cargo would help to justify the massive investments that are already needed to build more sidings, double-tracking and other improvements to keep both freight and passenger rail systems operating smoothly. One such project would be the central Bellingham waterfront rail line relocation.

The public sector likely would have to shoulder some of the cost, as well as BNSF Railway Co., Agnew said.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham chamber, said he doesn't think the added rail traffic should be a negative for the business community.

"You're going to see the chamber as a very strong supporter of this," Oplinger said.

As he sees it, rail traffic through Bellingham and the rest of the county is going to increase in the years ahead, with or without the Gateway Pacific terminal.

"The question is, do we want to get the benefits from it and get the jobs out of it," Oplinger said.