Coal terminal could help Marysville build offramp

MARYSVILLE — A proposed coal terminal in Bellingham that could bring 18 more trains per day through Marysville could, in a backhanded way, work to the city’s advantage.

It could help Marysville get money for a major road project: an offramp from northbound I-5 to northbound Highway 529 at the new Ebey Slough Bridge.

Currently there’s no funding for the $50 million project. The ramp has been on Marysville’s wish list for years and would help the city’s traffic problems, with coal trains or without, officials said.

Still, the issue has magnified the need for road improvements in the area, said state Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett.

“The (coal train) issue has drawn attention to and exposed the need to fund critical projects like this to relieve congestion and improve flow,” Harper said.

The senator said it’s possible the offramp could get a small allocation for design in the budget currently being written. The project is a priority among Snohomish County legislators, he said.

If the offramp gets design money, it will help its chances of attracting money for construction, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.

The offramp would allow many northbound I-5 drivers to exit and go over the tracks as opposed to having to get off at Fourth Street, 88th Street NE or 116th Street NE and sit at railroad crossings just east of the freeway.

Whether the ramp gets built or not, more trains would still spell more backups for city traffic. Marysville has 18 railroad crossings — 11 public and eight private, city administrator Gloria Hirashima said. That’s by far the most of any city in Snohomish County.

The proposed Gateway Pacific terminal would serve as a place to send coal, grain, potash and scrap wood for biofuels to Asia. Coal would be moved by train from Montana and Wyoming across Washington and up through Seattle and Snohomish County toward Bellingham.

The terminal, proposed by SSA Marine, Inc. of Seattle, would bring up to 18 more trains per day along the route — nine full and nine empty.

The company estimates construction work on the terminal would create up to 1,700 jobs and 4,400 temporary spin-off positions. The terminal itself is forecast to employ 450 people and generate 800 connected positions.

Opponents’ arguments against the plan include potential traffic congestion and pollution from coal dust.

Environmental studies on the terminal and trains are in the beginning stages and expected to take more than a year.

The off-ramp is also likely a couple of years away at best.

A $1.2 billion pot of federal money the state is in line to receive from the federal government has already been assigned to other projects, said Kris Olsen, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Another project that could help with railroad-crossing traffic is a $42 million expansion of the interchange at I-5 and 116th Street NE.

The interchange is only about a half mile west of the railroad tracks, so reducing congestion there would help at the crossing, officials have said. The interchange project is designed but still needs money for construction, according to Nehring.

“That’s definitely another project that’s on my list of requests,” Harper said.

Still, most of the improvements likely will require another tax increase of some kind, he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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