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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Rail transportation experts to speak at NW Business Club

Speakers will discuss the impacts of increased rail traffic on the Portland-to-Vancouver, B.C. rail corridor, at an upcoming Northwest Business Club meeting.
The club announced that on Wednesday, Aug. 10, it’ll have the following people speaking:
  • Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development. The center promotes high-speed passenger rail between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C.
  • Jim Miller, executive director of the Whatcom Council of Governments, a transportation-planning agenda.
From the club:
The current rail issue is centered on the proposed shipment of coal to Cherry Point, especially the impact of long slow moving coal trains on commerce passing along the Bellingham waterfront. A better comprehension of the rail system, its management and goals will help us understand possible effects of future changes
When: 11:45 a.m. (lunch buffet starts), noon (meeting starts) on Aug. 10Where: Elks Lodge, 710 S. Samish WayCost: $10 for annual members, $15 for others.

Read more at the Bellingham Herald’s Political Blog

Timely Updates

Three major victories in the past two weeks should give heart to those who wonder whether we won’t be overwhelmed by corporate coal interests.

First there is the decision by Whatcom County Planning and Development Services that Gateway Pacific applicant, SSA Marine must reapply for the Shorelines permit, that their initial application filed in 1997 did not address the possibility of their project being a coal port.

The second major achievement in this struggle the Washington State Department of Ecology agreeing to Whatcom County’s request that the state co lead the adjudication of the Environmental Impact Statement concerning GPT.

The third major decision concerns a parallel interest in the Tongue River Valley in Montana, where a BNSF rail project could transform a bucolic back country area into an industrial corridor. A 3 judge Panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the federal Surface Transportation Board had to reconsider and properly consider environmental impacts of running a coal train through the Tongue River Valley. The court was saying that in this case, mitigation of problems was putting the cart before the horse. The Panel’s decision lends strength to the safeguardthesouthfork concern that impacts on the Farm Land Route must be assessed in the EIS prior to permitting of GPT.

Your SGSF board is working hard on behalf of you, our readers and supporters. We are involved in the following initiatives:

  • Meeting with Utilities and Transportation Commission Officials to discuss rail impacts;
  • Coordinating a meeting with Senator Murray’s office where we expect to discuss rail and geopolitical issues which bear upon the siting of the port;
  • Communicating with the United States Coast Guard to verify the extent to which the growth of shipping in the Salish Sea from the U.S and Canada might effect the permitting of GPT;
  • Utilizing a data bank we acquired from the Whatcom County Assessor that provides us with information pertinent to land ownership along the Farm Land Route;
  • Drafting and Distributing a letter and survey for residents along the Farmland Route;
  • Greeting Rick Larsen at the Deming Library, who will be commemorating the advancement of technological services for the library. Join us in politely congratulating him for taking the needs of county residents seriously.

If you are pleased with the work that we are doing on your behalf write to us and offer your suggestions. Your support is always appreciated.

Why the South Fork?

Whatcom County residents need to realize that the majority of Bellingham folk and its economic development community prefer to see the “Coal Train” go anywhere but through Bellingham. If you think the “Coal Train” will absolutely go up the coast and an alternative roundabout farmland route to the Cherry Point Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) is impossible, then you need to improve your chess game.  Gee whiz, the spokeswoman for BNSF Railway told Mayor Pike that the Coal Train was destined to go through Bellingham?  And didn’t Ken Opplinger, president of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce helplessly declare that those trains headed to British Columbia were  going through Bellingham one way or another.

We are being played by BNSF.  Forget what apologist Opplinger swears to, because coal trains to Canada are easily routed through Great Falls Montana from the coal fields in Wyoming.  If you want the truth ask the Great Falls police, who dealt with 13 derailed coal cars returning from BC at 3:00 AM October 14, 2010.

BNSF has a problem coping with “diminished capacity”.  Anticipating an exploding Asian appetite for coal via GPT, with an additional twenty to thirty trains per day over and above its daily freight and passenger service, their single track from Mt. Vernon to Bellingham is a choke point  destined for expansion should GPT be approved.  For this reason alone people living along the Farm Land Route in Whatcom County have something to worry about.

BNSF may assert that Bellingham is the only route and the alternative route: Skagit County, the South Fork Valley, Sumas, Lynden and Ferndale is uncalled for, but those who safeguard the South Fork Valley know they do as they please. Do they dare eschew the Farm Land route in writing?  Over a 20  year period BNSF, old hand that it is in getting its way, cleverly used “delayed stage timing” as a tactic to sidestep environmental review of its Tongue River Project in Montana, thus transforming a once bucolic farmland into an industrial nightmare. It could happen here.and it is realistic to ensure that this alternative route be included in any environmental review of GPT.

Whether the train goes through Bellingham or the Farm Land route all of us will  have to engage these environmental challenges. Unique to the Farm Land route however will be the modernization of the rail and highway corridor from Wickersham to Ferndale.  Today there are 91 public railroad crossings throughout Whatcom County.  Unless this county is to look like a third world country most of these crossings will be upgraded with improved warning lights and gates.  In many cases, especially along Hwy 9, overpasses will be the only solution for the prompt passage of emergency vehicles. Indeed the whole state faces this problem.

It was Senator, then Representative Doug Ericksen, (the current candidate for Whatcom County Executive ) whose Transportation Committee ten years ago, enthusiastically commissioned the study for “Commerce Corridor” from Sumas to Tenino.  This was a dry run for what confronts us today.  To the sponsor’s surprise the study concluded that this highway/rail project was basically unaffordable and unacceptable. To wit, numerous environmental issues, one for example in the South Fork Valley above the Samish River headwaters was  insurmountable.
The Commerce Corridor study never attempted to envision the long term impact on the people along the corridor.  Although building overpasses at critical intersections would necessarily obliterate a few small towns, causing some dislocation and create the need for relocating and redeveloping, Acme, Van Zandt and Nooksack, the study did not anticipate the infrastructure and zoning changes that it could trigger.  It all came under the heading of progress.

One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to think the mile and a half long coal train is destined to travel through the South Fork Valley.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Anything detrimental about it is equally detrimental to everyone in the county and the state.  The bankrupting cost of build out will fall to the taxpayer and once again the common folk will be footing the bill for those who would make us do it for them