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Valley View Road rail crossing to close for good

The Valley View Road railroad crossing near Custer on Friday, March 24, 2016. The UTC ruled that a new BNSF siding across the road poses too much of a risk to keep the road open, and will allow the crossing to be permanently closed.
The Valley View Road railroad crossing near Custer on Friday, March 24, 2016. The UTC ruled that a new BNSF siding across the road poses too much of a risk to keep the road open, and will allow the crossing to be permanently closed. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Drivers who normally take Valley View Road will have to change their routes to get across the railroad tracks near Arnie Road, as that crossing will be permanently closed.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission agreed on March 8 to close the crossing, as it will become “especially hazardous” when BNSF Railway installs a new siding next to existing tracks there.

Because BNSF reported the new siding could become a parking spot for trains for hours on end and potentially block drivers’ view, the commission granted the railroad’s petition to close the crossing for safety.

It is not clear when exactly the crossing will be closed.

BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an email that the company did not have an estimate for when the work might start.

Siding project

BNSF requested the closure in February 2015. The company planned to put in a new siding to serve existing customers at Cherry Point and allow for full trains to be pulled off the main line as needed for traffic flow.

Whatcom County objected to the closure, in part because it seemed likely the infrastructure would really serve the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk commodity export operation.

The county backed off that argument in December, after the state Department of Ecology ruled on Nov. 10, 2015, that the siding, known as the Intalco Yard Expansion Project, did not meet the threshold that would require a full environmental study under state policy.

The commission has no say in whether or not the siding should or could be built, only whether or not the public need for the crossing would outweigh the safety risks. The commission also may require upgrades or changes at nearby crossings when a crossing is closed.

As unsettling as we find the prospect of BNSF parking unit trains full of crude oil on the siding, unmanned, for hours at a time, we have no jurisdiction or authority to prevent the siding extension project from going forward.

Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission

The county had the opportunity to petition the March 8 order, but opted not to, said Dan Gibson, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.

“The reasoning of the administrative law judge was quite sound,” Gibson said. “She doesn’t decide whether or not the siding goes in. The railroad will put in the siding.”

As for the concerns about any ties between the siding and GPT, the county doesn’t have a procedural way to express that concern anymore, Gibson said. The county did not challenge Ecology’s November 2015 decision, and the other arguments to the commission about the safety issues showed the crossing should be closed, he said.

Concerns over the siding

Whatcom County residents got the chance to weigh in on the proposed closure at a Dec. 1 hearing at the County Courthouse. Nineteen people spoke against the closure at the meeting. While some concerns were about impacts to travel through that area, many dealt with the potential to increase oil train traffic to the BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries.

“As unsettling as we find the prospect of BNSF parking unit trains full of crude oil on the siding, unmanned, for hours at a time, we have no jurisdiction or authority to prevent the siding extension project from going forward,” the commission’s March 8 order states.

171 Written comments received on proposed closure

168 Opposed

2 In favor

1 Undecided

The only landowner who lives within 500 feet of the crossing filed a comment stating he was fine with the closure.

Drivers, including emergency responders, will need to take either the Ham Road or Custer Main Street crossings, which are each more than a mile away.

The new route likely will increase the time it takes emergency vehicles to get to some addresses, from the current 8 to 10 minutes, to 10 to 12 minutes.

Henry Hollander, North Whatcom Fire division chief, testified in December that the increased emergency response times would still fall within the acceptable range for that area.

Under the order, BNSF must pay for:

▪  The installation of signs at Valley View and Arnie roads, and Valley View and Creasey roads.

▪  Construction of a turnaround near the north and south approaches to the crossing.

▪  Upgraded safety features at the Ham Road crossing, including gates, flashing lights, signs and pavement markings.

▪  Construction of a right-bound turn lane at the intersection of Main Street and Portal Way.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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