Transportation planners in Whatcom County have asked for congressional help with traffic delays at a railroad crossing in Blaine, due to U.S.-bound trains crawling through a border-inspection system.
However, Blaine-area officials gave conflicting accounts of how serious the problems were.
The Whatcom Council of Governments on Oct. 9 sent a letter to Blaine’s congressional delegation — U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene — asking them to help get the Vehicle Cargo and Inspection System moved someplace else in the county, or elsewhere, so it wouldn’t block road traffic in Blaine.
The letter, signed by Council of Governments Director Robert Wilson, said students who arrive late to Blaine schools due to delays at the railroad crossings are missing instruction time and breakfast.
“When that happens, it makes it much more difficult for those kids to take full advantage of the instruction they receive before lunch,” the letter said. Low-income students receive free breakfasts at school to ensure they are ready to learn.
But Blaine School Superintendent Ron Spanjer said students have never missed breakfast, even if a bus arrived late because of a delay at a railroad crossing.
“Our food service director has confirmed that these students (over multiple years) have always received a breakfast,” he said in an email.
Wilson said he would correct the statement in the letter when the Council of Governments meets with the congressional delegation.
The border inspection system, known as VACIS, was installed south of Blaine in the summer of 2003. Gamma rays from the VACIS array produce images of rail car interiors, enabling inspectors to quickly identify people, weapons or other contraband hidden in the train cars.
The system is 4,000 feet southeast of the crossing at Bell Road and Peace Portal Drive. Trains can be a mile long and go through the inspection system at 6 mph, resulting in delays at the crossing.
Spearheading the local response to the issue is Blaine Mayor Harry Robinson.
“I’ve been pushing it for five years,” he said. “I’ve been pushing really hard for someone to pay attention, either at the state or federal level.”
In addition to school buses, Robinson cites delays to emergency responders at the Bell Road crossing.
“The firetrucks and ambulances cannot cross there,” Robinson said. “They’re stuck there for half an hour to an hour.”
Henry Hollander, division chief for North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, said the amount of delay, if any, depends on the call. Paramedics responding to a serious injury can be delayed if they are coming from Ferndale, he said.
“It’s not a common occurrence, but it does happen,” he said.
“We have staffed stations in Birch Bay and Blaine,” Hollander said. “If we know there’s a train on the track, then we dispatch a unit from the other side.”
“There might be a better place to put that machine that would not have as much of an impact on emergency services,” he said.
That’s the conversation Robinson and fellow Council of Government officials would like to have with Customs and Border Protection and with BNSF Railway. Both the federal agency and the railroad company said they are reviewing the issue.
Rep. DelBene gave a statement in response to the letter: “My office has asked the Department of Homeland Security to respond to the important concerns raised in this letter. While VACIS is a valuable tool that can be deployed to protect our border security at rail and sea ports, it should not come at the expense of efficient travel and mobility in our border communities. I hope that the Department of Homeland Security will work with us to minimize the impact that using VACIS technology has on traffic in Blaine.”