Impacts of proposed Cherry Point Coal Export Terminal | GUEST OPINION

If you live or work in Marysville, you already know the frustration and patience required when red lights flash and the gate arms at a railroad crossing lower to signal an approaching freight train, and the wait that follows.

Under a current proposal to build a coal export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham near Ferndale, that wait for passing trains would become intolerably longer and occur much more often.

SSA Marine of Seattle has begun the two-year process of environmental studies that will be necessary to obtain a variety of state and federal permits for the project. It would be one of the largest coal export facilities on the continent and the only one on the West Coast. Proponents say as many as nine trains per day could rumble through the city on the way north to the terminal, south of the BP Cherry Point refinery, laden with up to 54 million tons of Wyoming and Montana coal and other bulk cargoes that would be loaded on large ships bound for China and other Asian markets. If those trains return south empty the way they came, the 18 trains per day would equate to about one coal train every 1.3 hours, all day long, in addition to existing train traffic.

According to our preliminary analysis, impacts from increased train traffic associated with this project carry severe consequences for our city’s commercial district and downtown-waterfront plans, transportation planning and improvements, and public safety with the risk of more car-train accidents.

As Mayor, my first priority is to the citizens in Marysville and seeing to it that their safety, quality of life and livelihood are sustained. I am certainly all for job growth, but the potential jobs from this terminal would be 65 miles north of here near Ferndale, while Marysville and other communities would be left to deal with the negative impacts.

Getting out ahead on this issue, the City Council at its July 26 meeting heard a briefing from Salish Land Policy Solutions, a Bellingham public interest consulting firm hired by the Bellingham businesses and property owners to evaluate the process and facts, and Gibson Traffic Consultants, who conducted a preliminary review of the project impacts.

Currently, 36-37 trains per day (including Amtrak round-trips) travel the tracks that run north-south directly through the heart of the city’s business district passing 17 crossings, including three major freeway access arterials — 4th/SR 528, 88th and 116th Streets — and numerous street and private crossings. The trains generally are 60-75 cars long, or 3/4 of a mile, with wait times of up to 9 minutes.

Full build out of the coal export facility could add 18 more train trips a day, extending 1 1/2 miles long (120-150 cars each), which at 30 mph would mean about 6-7 minutes between train approach warning and ultimate gate opening, or at 5 mph could take 14-18 minutes to clear a crossing. The 18 trains a day (9 north, 9 south)  would equate to one additional coal train every 1.3 hours, all day long, in addition to existing train traffic with which we’re already familiar, and is likely to increase when the economy rebounds.

Here are some of the more significant impacts to Marysville’s commercial district and quality of life based on our analysis:

Due to speed restrictions approach warning, trains through Marysville’s downtown means the barriers are down for 6-8 minutes for the larger freight trains a mile or longer. This is equal to 3-4 continuous red light cycles in a row for a normal signal on 4th Street, which would significantly reduce the road’s level of service (translated, longer delays).

With the increase in number of long coal trains, the nightmare scenario for the city is having all its I-5 entrances blocked at the same time, i.e. SR 528, 88th and 116th. Recent capacity improvement on 116th Street completed by the city would be negated by the increased coal train activity.

Within the past five years, 30 accidents have been reported at rail crossings in Marysville, almost half involving the actual rail gates and one with a vehicle struck by a train in 2008, causing serious injury to two people at the 88th Street crossing. The rest were mainly rear end collisions of vehicles stopping for gate closures.

Marysville and other jurisdictions are in no position to tell Burlington Northern Santa Fe how to use their railway, but we can press the appropriate state and federal agencies to make sure that rail traffic impacts on cities along the proposed route receive intense study from an economic and transportation standpoint, and urge a transparent and thorough review process.

As your Mayor, I will continue to lobby for alternative site analysis as well as mitigation for any potential negative impacts to Marysville’s citizens and businesses.

Mayor Jon Nehring can be reached at mayor@marysvillewa.gov or 360-363-8091


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