BELLINGHAM - The additional train traffic generated by the Gateway Pacific Terminal project at Cherry Point could provide political and financial impetus to help pay for needed rail improvements through Whatcom County, two transportation planners said Wednesday, Aug. 10.
Jim Miller, executive director of the Whatcom Council of Governments, told the Northwest Business Club that rail and vehicle traffic will increase in western Washington, with or without coal trains to Gateway Pacific.
In Miller's view, the Gateway Pacific coal and bulk cargo terminal project could help focus state and federal attention on transportation system needs here. If opponents of the terminal prevail, an opportunity to upgrade the transportation network in Bellingham and Whatcom County could be lost.
"They (opponents) are going to possibly win the battle but lose the war," Miller said, noting that state and local officials have little or no influence on how BNSF Railway Co. chooses to operate.
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Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, expressed similar views at the meeting.
Agnew said the rail lines from Seattle to Portland have been getting most of the attention and most of the limited supply of transportation funding, but that could change if SSA Marine of Seattle gets the green light to develop the massive new shipping terminal at Cherry Point, just south of the BP Cherry Point refinery.
"From Seattle to Blaine, let's get our act together," Agnew said. "It could be our opportunity to invest in the rail corridor."
Today, Agnew said, the rail line through Bellingham handles about 15 trains per day. If Gateway Pacific is built to its maximum envisioned capacity, that could more than double, but Agnew said the increase need not be disruptive to traffic, passenger rail or other freight shippers if massive investments are made in upgrading the system.
That's already happening in British Columbia.
Agnew noted that federal, provincial and municipal governments are joining with BNSF and Canadian railroads to pour more than $300 million into the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor Program. The money will build nine new overpasses along a rail line that now carries 18 trains per day but could have twice that many within 10 years.
"They are focused on infrastructure investments," Agnew said. "You've got to deal with that upfront and invest in the infrastructure."
Backers of SSA Marine's project have argued that coal trains will travel through Bellingham with or without Gateway Pacific, as coal exports from Canadian terminals increase.
According to Agnew's statistics, some increase in exports from Canadian terminals is in the works, but those increases won't add up to even half the nearly 50 million tons per year that could be shipped via Gateway Pacific. He also noted that Canadian coal producers want the added capacity at Canadian ports for themselves.
But that doesn't mean that rail and vehicle traffic in Whatcom County will remain stagnant without Gateway Pacific, he said.
Agnew has a long history of advocating for improved passenger rail service, and as he sees it, Gateway Pacific could spur rail corridor improvements that also would accommodate more passenger trains.
One questioner in the audience challenged the $32 million state subsidy that now helps keep Amtrak trains operating. Agnew replied that the state expects to phase out that subsidy eventually. More and better trains have already been shown to improve ridership and reduce operating subsidies, and fare income should be able to cover costs in the years ahead.