Who Pays?

It’s amusing how two writers can go to the same Northwest Business Club luncheon lecture and come away with different reports.

The headline in the Bellingham Herald, “Cherry Point Cargo Terminal Could Help Fund Rail Upgrades”, should read, “Taxpayers to Pay through Nose for BNSF/China Coal Train.” Journalist John Stark wrote that transportation experts Jim Miller of the Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG) and Bruce Agnew, Executive Director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development in Everett, were encouraged by the prospect of a Cargo (sic) Coal Terminal at Cherry Point. It could provide political and financial impetus to help pay for needed rail improvements through Whatcom County and could help focus state and federal attention on transportation needs here. How sweet.

Throughout, Stark’s article deemphasized the darker aspects of the situation and both men’s comments — that despite the fact that there is a shorter, albeit more costly route through Montana, the coal trains will travel through Bellingham and that state and local officials can’t do anything about it. Agnew stated “the coal train need not be disruptive to traffic, passenger rail or other freight shippers if massive investments are made in upgrading the system.” Boosters at heart, neither Miller nor Agnew did not emphasize, nor did Stark choose to report, how disruptive the increase in rail traffic would be to street and highway transportation or how massive our public investment would be in order to relieve that congestion. Stark also failed to report Agnew’s assessment of future demands for railroad support to Boeing, to Tesoro in Anacortes, and other industries along the North Sound rail corridor? The cost for needed improvements and additional siding to accommodate this growth, including Amtrak, is several billion dollars.

Agnew, awakening to reality noted that Canadian 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 to build new overpasses, “You’ve got to deal with that upfront and invest in the infrastructure.”

Stark painted a problem free picture. Even though it is like pulling teeth to get the experts to focus on a reality which fades, victim to their allegiance to corporate conformity, WCOG & the Cascadia Center, both publicly funded agencies, have an obligation to honestly identify the true cost to be paid by the public for a new commerce corridor through Whatcom and Skagit Counties and the entire coal train route. While Congress is trying to cut trillions from the US budget GPT analysts stick their official heads in the sand.

Stark, not one to let the cat out of the bag side tracked to a questioner in the audience who challenged the $32 million state subsidy for Amtrak while completely ignoring a pertinent follow up by Mark Nelson, City Club’s preeminent inquisitor, who queried whether a farm land route through the South Fork Valley and eastern Whatcom County would be a viable alternative for BNSF. To which both experts reluctantly confessed, absolutely in the affirmative.

This might be amusing repartee for the bleakly realistic who hope the train will bypass Bellingham, but the most the ominous and wouldn’t you know, understated message from Agnew was “that 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 Pacific ports. Moreover Canadian coal producers want the added capacity at Canadian ports for themselves.”

Given Governor Gregoire’s position that coal is going to be shipped to Asia one way or another, the question is who pays?

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