The Gristle

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RAILROADED!: Bellingham and Whatcom County got a bitter taste of the future last month when track work along the BNSF main line temporarily closed the city’s most popular park. Boulevard Park was closed to all but foot traffic for several days at the height of summer. South Bay Trail at Wharf Street was also periodically blocked by trains idled by track work along a 1.6-mile choke point from Fairhaven to downtown Bellingham. Throughout the fall, county road crossings will continue to close periodically to accommodate track work on the main line. Washington Street and Hovander Road in Ferndale will temporarily close next week as BNSF Railway prepares plans to double-track eight miles of line north and south of Ferndale, in addition to the six-mile-long Custer-to-Cherry Point spur, all in response to an increasing volume of a new generation of very long, very heavy unit-trains hauling coal and oil to Northwest ports and refineries. Roads in the eastern county will also periodically close as the railway company continues to upgrade the eastern alternative line through Sumas, the Farmland Route.

The Bellingham Herald reported last week on particularly unwelcomed news for the eastern county, as BNSF scuttled their assurances in 2011 that the Farmland Route would not be used to drive coal train traffic through Sumas.

Instead, BNSF has spent several million dollars upgrading the route along sections that shadow Highway 9 from Sumas through Nooksack, Deming, Van Zandt, and Acme. The company no longer denies these upgrades will service an increase in coal and oil trains.

“We’re updating this (Sumas) line because we’re trying to improve service and velocity throughout our rail system,” BNSF representative Courtney Wallace told the Herald. “As traffic increases, we can utilize the Sumas Line to help with network fluidity.

“A loaded train could go in one direction, and take a different route back,” she offered.

“We have always advocated that it is imperative to include this route in the environmental impact statement for Gateway Pacific Terminal, that this will represent a transportation impact,” Jeff Margolis said. Margolis is a co-founder of Safeguard The South Fork, an advocacy group calling for more candor and accountability from BNSF on railway impacts.

In July, Bellingham City Council joined Mayor Kelli Linville in similar appeals, drafting a letter that outlined city concerns about impacts and costs associated with an increase in freight rail traffic through Bellingham.

“Improvements within Bellingham are necessary,” council wrote to the co-lead agencies tasked with permitting an expansion of export capacity at Cherry Point. “In the two years since the city first raised this concern, no evidence has been presented to the contrary. In fact, third-party investigations have verified existing capacity constraints, and further indicate that typical travel times for freight trains along the Bellingham segment may be longer, and the capacity constraints more severe, than previously supposed. Recent increases in oil unit-train traffic have further reduced the available mainline capacity,” they wrote.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws responded to the city’s letter in an Aug. 27 reply.

“Whatcom County shares your concerns with off-site rail impacts associated with the project review, as well as the type and extent of necessary improvements to existing rail corridors,” Louws assured city leaders, agreeing that permit application “is not conclusive on whether there is or is not sufficient rail capacity in the Bellingham and Whatcom County area for the additional rail traffic associated with the GPT project.”

“It is our opinion that capacity improvements on the Bellingham subdivision will be needed sometime in the intermediate future, regardless of the outcome of the GPT proposal,” BNSF Government Affairs Director Terry Finn admitted to City Council in a May 14 memo. “Various capacity improvements, including the idea of a second main track along the city waterfront, have been under discussion for years.

“The railroad is looking at several ideas, and, as yet, has not concluded that a new or longer siding is the answer. Double tracking in certain areas may serve just as well,” Finn noted.

However, in response to Louws on Aug. 25, BNSF commented, “There are no plans to build a railroad siding in the City of Bellingham to accommodate trains for a proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point, nor will the terminal need such a siding. BNSF has determined that any capacity improvements that might be needed to accommodate our overall rail business in the Pacific Northwest are more appropriately placed along our route in areas other than Bellingham,” noted BNSF Director of Strategic Development F. E. “Skip” Kalb, Jr., in a curt response.

The two statements cannot easily be reconciled. The Railway company acknowledges that capacity improvements will be required in Bellingham, regardless of the construction of GPT, and the company has determined that its assets and investments are more appropriately spent in areas other than Bellingham. The conclusion is the city will suffer considerable costs without assistance by the railroad.

The uptick in aggression from BNSF, reversing two long-held assurances that they would not expand east and would accommodate capacity needs in Bellingham follow in tandem with reports that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. posted record profits in the second-quarter of 2014 of $5.7 billion, up from $5.3 billion a year ago, as volumes of industrial goods carried in its cars rose. Net income for BNSF rose to $916 million, from $884 million.

It’s the story of capitalism as old as the railroads: Maximize profits by externalizing costs.

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