Carrying Coal to Custer

Is it coal or oil that moves BNSF to close Valley View Road?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Out on Valley View Road, in the peaceful rolling pastures and blossoming apple orchards of north county, an exceptional dispute is developing. County officials are talking back to North America’s second largest railroad.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe wants to do away with its crossing at Valley View Road, effectively closing the road, southwest of Portal Way and a half-mile or so from Birch Bay Center.

BNSF asked the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to approve doing away with the crossing, in order to extend an existing rail siding across the road and beyond. They need the added siding, BNSF says, to serve existing oil refineries in the Cherry Point industrial area.

Geographically, it looks like part of BNSF’s Custer Spur, a short line that developers must upgrade and expand to support the huge, coal-exporting Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point. But the company says its Valley View project―the closure―is separate from its plan for carrying coal to Custer.

Not so, according to Whatcom County Public Works engineer Joe Rutan. He wrote the UTC last month, opposing BNSF’s closure of Valley View Road. He asked the utilities commissioners to hear public arguments on the issue. UTC will announce a hearing date later this month. Rutan and other county officials are persuaded that the Valley View Road closure is part and parcel of BNSF’s plan to supply coal to GPT.

It matters.

If the closure is linked to the coal port, the Valley View closure becomes part of a remarkably broad, much-debated study of environmental impacts being carried out by three government agencies: Whatcom County, Washington Department of Ecology, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The results of that study will dominate the County Council’s decision whether or not to permit the giant coal port, expected to be the largest in North America.

If the Valley View closure is a stand-alone project not linked to the coal terminal, BNSF’s route is comparatively simple: an environmental checklist, a public hearing, pay for disturbing a nearby wetland, close the road and build the siding.

But not so fast.

The Washington Department of Ecology cites documents from the oil refining companies, stating that they don’t need any more off-site train storage; while proponents of the coal terminal have told county officials that the coal port would require the additional train storage.

In his letter to the UTC, Rutan suggests that “the project (closing the crossing) as proposed may be in conflict with the State Environmental Protection Act, as inappropriate phasing of review” [emphasis added].

Land-use planners know this as “piecemealing,” revealing small parts of a controversial plan in order to gain a permit and move on to the next phase without ever showing the whole scheme. State environmental protection rules explicitly do not allow piecemealing.

Rutan does not use that term.

“We’re not accusing them of doing it,” Rutan says of the BNSF process. “We’re just expressing concern that they might be in violation. And we’re pointing out that we can’t plan, can’t administer our highway program if we can’t see the whole of what the railroad plans to do.”

“If we approved this closure, then will we be asked to approve another, then another?” Rutan speculated.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas declined to comment on the disagreement, except to maintain that the Valley View closing and siding are unrelated to the coal port. It should be closed for all the reasons BNSF stated in its UTC petition, he said.

But in his letter opposing it, Rutan raises doubts about BNSF’s basic facts.

The railway company says only 90 cars and trucks per day cross the tracks on Valley View on an average day. Whatcom County Public Works’ own traffic study found about 350 vehicles using the crossing.

BNSF says the next nearest railroad crossing is a mile and two-tenths from Valley View. That suggests that the closure won’t cause anyone a lot of grief.

But Rutan says the detour length—the route you’ll take in order to get around the closed crossing and get to where you want to be on the other side—could be three to five miles. Inconvenient if you’re going after gas and groceries;  potential disaster if you’re trying to get an ambulance or a fire truck to a crisis on the other side of the tracks.

Rutan’s letter insists that any rail projects related to it deserve the detailed study being applied to the many other impacts of the giant coal port.

BNSF lists public safety as another reason for closing Valley View. Grade crossings are inherently dangerous. At least 250 people were killed and 925 injured in car/truck/train collisions in the United States in 2013, the latest year for which federal numbers are available. Citing safety reasons, BNSF has closed thousands of grade crossings around the country.

Then there’s the maintenance cost. The concrete roadbeds between the tracks need to be replaced periodically. Warning devices require servicing. BNSF, with $16.8 billion in operating revenue, second (barely) to Union Pacific, does not spend money readily, especially not to make things easier for trucks.

In most of the United States, in disputes like this one, the railroad can claim seniority on the little slice of land being contested. They were there before the roads came. Not at Valley View. For whatever difference it makes to the UTC review in Olympia, Rutan’s letter points out that the road was 80 years old before the first train crossed it.


Whatcom County is far from alone in expressing frustration over the prospect of streets to be dominated or closed by BNSF’s need to expand its trackage in support of the coal terminal, and a huge influx of so-called unit trains― delivering a single product to a single place―as much as one and a half miles long.

The City of Bellingham found itself in a well-publicized squabble with BNSF last summer. An independent study by the consulting firm Transit Safety Management predicted that BNSF would need to add sidings that would block much of the Bellingham waterfront, including Boulevard Park. The railway company denied it.

The city, along with CommunityWise Bellingham, an organization formed to research and analyze data related to GPT, wanted to know how BNSF plans to supply the coal terminal without adding the sidetrack blockade.

BNSF responded not with a plan, but a promise—a promse to not block Boulevard Park, and to do most of its rail improvements outside of Bellingham. Their response was not reassuring to those in charge of Whatcom County roads. Planners can only guess at their future challenges without seeing BNSF’s overall plan.

In the Skagit Valley, BNSF has let it be known that it wants to close its crossing at Walnut Street in downtown Burlington. It has not formally filed the petition with the UTC, but has talked it over with city officials, including Marv Pulst, Public Works Director for the City of Burlington.

Paraphrasing company executives, Pulst said, “BNSF tells us you can cooperate and there are other things we can do for you to make this easier, or you can oppose us, spend a lot of money and we will still eliminate the crossing in the end, so you’re better off working with us.”

“Our fire trucks are on the southwest side of the tracks,” Pulst said. “Suppose there’s a fire or a bad accident on the east side and a train a mile and a half long is going through town. Sure, there’s another crossing a block away, but what good does that do if both crossings are blocked?

“We’d like BN to work with us in creating an overpass above the tracks that would allow us to avoid conflict with trains and our east-west traffic.”

So would a lot of other cities between Bellingham and the mines of Montana. There’s not much history of it. In most agreements to share the cost of separating roads from the rails, the railroad’s share of the cost is 5 percent. They may pay more than that, but federal law makes certain they’re not required to.

The reluctant winner of any Burlington Northern clogged street award surely must be the tiny town of Benson, Minnesota. It’s on the far side of the Powder River mines that will supply Pacific Gateway Terminal. The coal goes east through Benson, along with a massive surge of oil trains from the North Dakota Bakken formation—the same that now sends oil by rail to Skagit and Whatcom refineries.

Benson, population 3,100, could be a train-pain poster child.

A double-track railroad splits the city into north and south halves. One track serves as a passing lane for the other. A switchyard at the west end of town brings trains from other railroads into the mix, backing freight cars into the mile-long town.

Minnesota law some years ago prohibited trains from blocking intersections for more than 10 minutes at a time (a limit BNSF claims as company policy throughout our territory). In Benson, 45-minute blockages were common, with 20 to 30 long unit trains moving through in a single day. There are three crossings in town, a block apart. It’s no trick for a standing or slow-moving train to block all three.

“We’re all a lot like Pavlov’s dog,” Reed Anfinson said. Anfinson publishes the Swift County Monitor-News, Benson’s weekly newspaper. “When we hear a whistle half a mile away you’ll see people rushing to their cars to get out of town before the train gets here.”

With Benson ranking number one on Minnesota’s list of blocked streets and crossings, the city tossed a pebble at the giant.

“Our police started writing traffic tickets,” Benson City Manager Rob Wolfington said.

“When a train blocked a crossing for more than 10 minutes, we wrote a citation and mailed it to Burlington Northern headquarters. For a long time BN paid the fines. I guess they thought it was easier than contesting them.”

But last year they pleaded not guilty and went to court. They won. The judge ruled that a local community can’t regulate anything related to interstate commerce.

A cautionary tale, perhaps, for those who would challenge Mr. Buffet’s coal train: not only did the judge find BNSF not guilty, he overturned Minnesota’s law that limited street crossing blockages to 10 minutes.

It was unconstitutional, the court ruled, for a state—much less a local government—to tell the railroad what to do.

March Silver Reef
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