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The Gristle

Railroaded!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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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Events
Today
A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

Connected by climate

10:00am

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Skagit Garage Sale

9:00am|Skagit County Fairgrounds

Oktoberfest Cruises

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Love, Loss & What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

A back-to-school guide

8:00pm

Welcome Back Students Shows

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Community Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Ferndale Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverfront Plaza

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

Farm Toy Show

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Skagit Valley Giant Pumpkin Festival

9:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Harvest Festival and Pumpkin Pitch

9:00am|Skagit River Park

Oyster Run Motorcycle Rally

9:00am|Anacortes

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Fall Family Fun

10:00am|Glen Echo Garden

Run with the Chums

10:00am|BP Highlands

Harvest Field Day

11:00am|WSU Washington Research and Extension Center

Wild Foods

11:00am|Deming Library

Food Truck Roundup

11:00am|Civic Stadium

Making memories at Make.Shift

12:00pm

Council of the Animals

12:00pm|Larrabee State Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Museum Day Live!

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum

Family Trees

1:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Holly Street History Tour

1:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fingerpainting for Grownups

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Trio of Writers at VB

2:00pm|Village Books

Salute to Satchmo

3:00pm|Sudden Valley Dance Barn

i.e. Reception

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Artist Talk

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

The Ferndale Challenge

5:00pm|Ferndale Senior Activity Center

World Peace Poets Read-In

5:00pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Democrats Dinner

5:30pm|Silver Reef Casino

Irish Concert and Workshop

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Night Hike

7:00pm|Tennant Lake Interpretive Center

Artifacts Wine Bar CW BOB 2016
Tomorrow
Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Connected by climate

10:00am

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Love, Loss & What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bellingham Bay Marathon

7:30am|Gooseberry Point

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Veterans Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Starry Night Chamber Orchestra

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

I, Angus

4:00pm|Village Books

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Sunday Night Fusion

7:00pm|Presence Studio

Deobrat Mishra

7:00pm|Majestic

Culture Shock

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Standup Comedy Showcase

8:30pm|The Shakedown

Bellingham Farmer’s Market CW BOB 2016
Monday
A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

We Grow Market

3:00pm|Northwest Youth Services

Yoga for Outdoor Fitness

6:00pm|REI

Candidate Forum

6:30pm|PUD Building

Cooking with Sea Vegetables

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

The Happy Elf Auditions

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Open Mic

7:00pm|Village Books

Poetrynight

8:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

see our complete calendar »

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