BNSF seeks closure of Valley View Road near Custer

BNSF Railway requested permission to permanently close the crossing at Valley View Road, a half mile south of Portal Way. In response, Whatcom County officials asked for a hearing before the state Utilities and Transportation Commission because county officials aren’t prepared to assess the impact the closure would have on county traffic.

County officials believed the closure would be required later to make room for trains headed to a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point, according to a March 10 letter to the commission requesting the hearing.

Gateway Pacific Terminal and associated improvements to the rail spur in Custer are undergoing environmental review and are at least two years away from construction, pending approval. Even so, BNSF would extend siding this year on the Custer spur all the way to the “Y” at Custer, where the spur comes off the main rail line between Bellingham and Vancouver, B.C.

BNSF said in its request for the road closure that the siding extension is needed so that trains to the oil refineries don’t block the main line, and so passenger trains can get through Custer without delays. BNSF estimated it would begin expansion of the siding in late spring.

In the county letter to the commission, interim Public Works Director Joe Rutan said the refineries don’t require the additional track for train storage.

“It has been stated to Whatcom County by the proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project that this additional storage, and thereby closure of Valley View, would be required as part of that project,” Rutan’s letter said.

Now the county doesn’t know where this year’s proposed work ends and future Custer spur improvements begin, and officials can’t be sure of the overall impacts to county roads.

“A detour around (Valley View) could be an additional two miles, impacting the residents and emergency services,” Executive Jack Louws told the County Council on March 3. “It is imperative that we understand BNSF’s rail system, and how we can best manage our transportation system around that.”

Rutan’s letter also mentioned that the county and BNSF don’t agree on the amount of traffic on Valley View Road. The county had counted 350 vehicles per day; BNSF reported 90 vehicles per day.

The commission is taking public comment through April 1 on the proposed closure of Valley View. Write to comments@utc.wa.gov.

Documents related to the Valley View closure are online at utc.wa.gov. Type “ 150189” in the box that says “Enter docket number.”