Traffic was backed up at three major intersections in Mount Vernon. Bus routes stalled. Drivers waited almost an hour.
This sounds like a scene from Skagit’s springtime Tulip Festival, when a torrent of tourists floods the valley with extra traffic.
But this backup happened in December. A locked wheel had stalled a train on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that run through the center of the city, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.
No injuries or collisions were reported from the incident. But with crossings blocked at West Fir Street, Riverside Drive and College Way, that locked wheel threw a wrench in plenty of people’s morning plans.
Fortunately, the affected parties did not include city firefighters.
“But it had a potential to cause us a problem,” Mount Vernon Fire Chief Roy Hari said at the time.
Trains are part of everyday life in the Skagit Valley, with passenger routes and various freight ventures bringing about 20 of them through each day, according to BNSF statistics.
If the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is built at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, that number could almost double.
Double the trains
Gateway Pacific would export up to 54 million tons of bulk commodities — mostly coal — to Asia. Seattle-based SSA Marine, the company proposing the terminal, already has a contract with Peabody Energy to ship coal mined in the Powder River Basin when and if the terminal is built.
Trains would carry that coal from Wyoming and Montana through Idaho and Spokane, along the Columbia River and north to Ferndale. With the terminal operating at maximum capacity, nine full trains would travel north, and nine empty would return south, bringing as many as 18 more trains through the Skagit Valley each day.
But before those extra trains start coming, several government agencies must study the potential effects of the project for an environmental impact statement (EIS). The scope of that study could cover only the proposed terminal site or it could be large enough to include areas — including Skagit County — where trains bound for the terminal would travel.
Co-lead agencies working on the EIS — Whatcom County, the state Department of Ecology and the Army Corps of Engineers — have been taking public comments about the study’s scope since September. The deadline to submit comments is 5 p.m. this Tuesday.
A longer wait
A train already comes through Skagit County every 72 minutes, on average. Adding trains bound for Cherry Point would mean that at a given railroad crossing in Skagit County, the barriers would come down and a train would roll through, horn blaring, every 38 minutes.
Of course, that’s if the trains are evenly spaced. At this point, their timing has yet to be determined.
Most coal trains are 125 cars long — about 1.5 miles — with the potential to grow to 150 cars, or 1.6 miles long, said BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.
A train of that length blocks a crossing for at least three minutes, depending on its speed, according to a study by Everett-based Gibson Traffic Consultants. A TranspoGroup study done for the Port of Bellingham, cited by terminal proponents, put the typical delay at about four minutes for a train 1 mile long.
In Mount Vernon and Burlington, where many major roads cross the tracks that run through the heart of the towns, this prospect has residents and city officials worried. They argue that not only could everyday commuters, trucks and tourists be delayed, so could emergency services.
“Heaven help you if you’re having a heart attack and live on the east side of the tracks,” said Burlington Planning Director Margaret Fleek.
Burlington’s police and fire stations are west of the BNSF tracks, while the nearest hospital is to the east. An 8,500-foot train blocks all four railway crossings in town at once, essentially cutting off one side of town from the other.
“If a train incident were to occur such that the train blocked all crossings, there would be no ready alternative for east-west travel through the city,” Burlington City Attorney Scott Thomas wrote in a letter he drafted to send to co-lead agencies developing an environmental impact statement for the project. “This would have a significant impact on emergency response service, school bus routing, and all other circulation through the city.”
In 2012, Burlington police’s average response time was three minutes and 23 seconds. Waiting for a coal train could double that.
To pass or overpass
Alleviating the effects of more train traffic comes down to giving the trains somewhere else to go or giving drivers a way to get around them.
BNSF is responsible for the first part. The company is constantly looking for places to expand, including along the route through Skagit County, Melonas said. Most recently, that meant a siding upgrade and extension in Mount Vernon to accommodate passenger service.
But bigger projects are unlikely to be on the horizon soon.
“We had the infrastructure when we were handling record volumes of freight, and we’re not where we were (then),” Melonas said.
The capacity of the rail line between Everett and Vancouver, British Columbia, is estimated at about 24 trains per day, according to a study done in 2011 by MainLine Management for the Pacific Northwest Rail Coalition. That’s only a few more trains than the current daily average.
The study projects the capacity on this line not reaching 38 trains per day until at least 2024.
For its part, BNSF does “everything we can to avoid blocking public crossings for more than 10 minutes,” Melonas said.
That leaves the other strategy: finding ways to avoid getting held up at crossings.
The Port of Skagit wrote in a 2011 letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire that additional trains would “block local business-related traffic” and slow economic development. In the letter, port commissioners suggested this problem “could be at least partially solved” by building overpasses at key crossings.
But that solution doesn’t come cheap.
Federal requirements dictate that railroads pay about 5 percent of the cost of overpasses and other “grade separation projects” to get drivers across the rail line without stopping for trains.
The other 95 percent would be up to local governments, which would likely need to seek state and federal grants and loans to help cover the costs. Mount Vernon and Burlington could be vying for that money against larger cities such as Seattle and Spokane, which have larger populations and more road traffic.
“If you’ve got to (build grade separations) … that’s got to be some big bucks,” said Mount Vernon Public Works Director Esco Bell. “There’s a lot of at-grade crossings at all the towns along the railroad.”
Newly elected state Sen. Barbara Bailey, a Republican representing the 10th Legislative District, said the burden of funding these projects shouldn’t fall solely on the state’s transportation budget.
“I think the train companies should be part of that discussion, as well as federal transportation folks and whoever else is affected by all this,” Bailey said. “I don’t think any community should be hung out there to take on the sole responsibility of mitigation somehow in the traffic areas and safety areas. You can’t just decide you’re going to put in a facility and not consider whether — moving a product by rail or truck — you impact all the rest of the area where those things are moving through. I think you need to look at it holistically.”
Bell said if train traffic increases enough, trying to build grade separation — probably at College Way — would move up the city’s priority list. He estimates the separation could cost between $25 million and $50 million. Fleek suggested Highway 20 as Burlington’s best shot at an overpass because it is a state highway, so the city could try to involve the state Department of Transportation.
Many commenters at the Mount Vernon scoping meeting in November suggested terminal proponents help pay for city projects to mitigate the effects of increased train traffic. In their letter to Gregoire, Port of Skagit commissioners said they would consider supporting the terminal only if solutions to the traffic issue are studied and if funding for those solutions is “incorporated into the budget of the Gateway project itself.”
But city officials have said that sounds like a long shot.
“The idea that they’d come in here and build a $40 million grade separation in towns such as Mount Vernon — that would mean they’d be doing them in every town along the way,” Bell said.
For now, the question of who foots the bill for any potential overpasses remains unanswered.
“(City government) will be able to do what we should do for a city of 32,000, but it doesn’t mean anybody’s going to come in and pay $40 million for at-grade separation,” Bell said.
Shake and wake
Even if road traffic can find a way around the tracks, the trains’ effects can be felt elsewhere.
When an earthquake rattled Anne Winkes’ Conway home, the only way she could tell it was an earthquake — not a train — was the absence of a horn.
After that, she volunteered to let the U.S. Geological Survey put a seismograph in her basement. The graphs it produces when a train goes by look like small earthquakes.
That, along with constant horn-blowing, is waking Winkes up more than usual these days.
“It’s sort of that ‘rumble, roar, clackety-clack,’ and it goes on for a few minutes,” she said. “That makes it harder to go back to sleep.”
For safety reasons, federal law requires that trains blow their horns 15 to 20 seconds before reaching a crossing. More trains means more horns blowing more often.
Of course, with BNSF predicting increased train traffic with or without the Gateway Pacific Terminal, some of that could happen anyway.
The question of trains’ inclusion in the environmental impact statement has come up time and again throughout the scoping period for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. No matter its fate, the project has Skagit residents talking about how trains affect their community — but whether the EIS will talk about it, too, remains to be seen.