BNSF says Bellingham is only practical route to Cherry Point cargo terminal

Trains headed for SSA Marine's proposed new shipping terminal at Cherry Point would get there via Bellingham, not the South Fork Valley, a BNSF Railway Co. spokeswoman said Thursday, May 12.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and other city residents had suggested that trains full of Rocky Mountain coal or other cargoes could bypass Bellingham and reach the Gateway Pacific Terminal site by way of the South Fork line. That would require routing the trains over existing track along Highway 9 to the border at Sumas and then through Canada, or the construction of a new rail link west from Lynden to the existing main line at Custer.

Suann Lundsberg, in BNSF's Fort Worth office, said neither alternative to Bellingham appears practical to railway officials.

Using existing tracks, the now lightly-used South Fork route would require costly upgrades to the existing line, as well as a far more lengthy route to the shipping terminal, Lundsberg said.

Linking the main line to the South Fork line via Lynden would require construction of 15 new miles of rail line. Besides the cost of building the line, the railroad would need to acquire 100 to 150 acres of land along the new route, construct a railroad bridge over the Nooksack River, and find ways to compensate for the loss of farmlands and wetlands.

Railroad officials held separate meetings Tuesday, May 10, with Pike, mayoral candidate Kelli Linville and County Executive Pete Kremen to discuss their concerns about the amount of rail traffic that the Gateway Pacific project could generate. Lundsberg described those meetings as "a listening session to hear what their concerns are."

Pike said his talk with the BNSF executives did nothing to allay his concerns.

"To me, right now, it seems they are pushing back against something (a Bellingham bypass route) that seems to be worth considering," Pike said. "My job is to protect Bellingham and make sure that at the end of the day, Bellingham is not harmed by this."

The only way to do that is to make sure that the impact of rail traffic on Bellingham is considered in the environmental impact statement process, Pike said. Once negative impacts have been substantiated, SSA or the railroad could be required to take steps to ease those impacts.

Pike is especially concerned about the impact that increased rail traffic could have on plans to redevelop the central waterfront, which is cut off from the rest of the city by the rail line. BNSF officials were unwilling to address that concern, in his view.

"This felt like somebody coming in and saying ... you can either get on board with this or we'll run you over. ... It wasn't what I was hoping for."

Linville, the former state representative who is challenging Pike for reelection, said she also told railroad officials that the impacts on Bellingham need to be studied and then avoided. Linville added that she has conveyed the same message to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Railroad officials also told Linville that train traffic through Bellingham likely will increase in the years ahead with or without Gateway Pacific, and that some of those trains will be carrying coal to expanding export terminals in Canada. About four coal trains per day already go through the city en route to Canadian ports, Linville said she was told.

"That's the frustrating thing for me," Linville said. "Bellingham has no control over this."

She encouraged city residents to talk to county, state and federal officials to raise their concerns.

Like Pike, Linville said she didn't feel satisfied by the information she got from the rail executives.

"The people that want it built are looking at the economic advantages," Linville said. "The people that don't want it built are looking at the environmental impacts. I don't think I have all the facts. ... Part of the frustration is, you can't predict everything that's going to happen."

Clayton Petree, the third candidate in the mayoral race, said he was unaware that BNSF executives were in town to discuss rail traffic concerns.

"I'm not really surprised the railroad didn't ask for a meeting with me," Petree said. "They probably read my comments ... where I've already said I won't support the project until I've seen the Environmental Impact Statement and learned all I can about how good or bad the project will be for Bellingham. They are used to the old way of doing things, so that puts me out of the running as far as they're concerned. Perhaps BNSF should wait for the EIS before making their own decisions."

Lundsberg said BNSF didn't mean to dodge Petree.

"We would certainly welcome conversations with anyone," she said.

Lundsberg's estimates of the Gateway Pacific terminal's impact were the same as those previously offered by SSA Marine: one to nine additional northbound trains per day passing through Bellingham. The empty trains would return southbound through the city. That means a maximum of 18 additional trains per day. As of now, she added, 15 trains a day are passing through town, including north- and southbound freight trains and Amtrak.

Rail traffic has been above those levels during past economic booms.

"Train volumes through Bellingham ebb and flow," Lundsberg said. "Those ebbs and flows are independent of whether this facility is built or not."

The railroad has no way of knowing how much demand there will be, or for what cargoes, when and if the terminal is built in five years.

"It's simply too soon to know what the market demands are going to be when the facility opens in five years," Lundsberg said. "We don't have any contracts with anyone."

Jeff Margolis is owner of Everybody's Store in Van Zandt and an organizer of Safeguard the South Fork, a new group formed to mobilize area residents on the rail issue. Margolis expects some will be relieved to learn that the railroad has no present interest in massive increases in train traffic through their valley.

"I think that people will be greatly relieved because it may not be in their lifetime that they have to put up with this," Margolis said.

But he noted that the situation could change if Asian demand for coal and other bulk exports continues to grow.