Marysville faces traffic nightmare with more trains

MARYSVILLE — The construction of a new coal terminal at Cherry Point will lead to increased freight rail traffic in the coming years throughout the Puget Sound region.

But, as a new report issued Thursday pointed out, that traffic will have a disproportionate impact on Marysville, which has numerous at-grade rail crossings within city limits.

Long trains frequently create backups in town, often clogging the off-ramps from I-5. Up to 18 new trains per day can be expected if the coal terminal opens.

Wait times at crossings, which range from a total of 22 minutes to an hour and a half per day, could increase 65 percent region-wide, but by as much as 147 percent per day within Marysville.

That will slow down commercial and commuter traffic, emergency response times, and ultimately have an economic impact of $1.65 million per year in Marysville alone, the report says.

That’s more than four times the $357,000 annual impact coal trains are expected to have on Everett and twice the size of the financial hit to Seattle.

With BNSF Railway’s main north-south line running through the heart of Marysville, the city is uniquely vulnerable. It has 16 at-grade crossings on public streets along the north-south rail line out of 33 total in Snohomish County. There are another eight crossings on private roads in Marysville.

The north-south line is the main route for freight traffic heading to the natural deep-water port at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, which is already the site of BP’s Cherry Point Refinery.

The report was prepared by a team of consulting firms. It was presented to the Puget Sound Regional Council during a meeting of its executive board Thursday. It points out that freight rail traffic in Washington by 2035 is expected to grow 130 percent to 238 million tons of cargo, even without the new coal terminal. That would amount to 27-31 more trains per day between Seattle and Spokane and up to 10 more per day between Everett and Vancouver, B.C.

With the coal export terminal, traffic will be much higher.

What the report doesn’t include is almost as important as what it does. Projected increases in oil train traffic, particularly the Bakken crude trains from North Dakota, are not within the scope of the report.

The safety of trains carrying flammable crude oil — such as the one that derailed in downtown Seattle on Thursday — likewise is not covered in the report, nor are the possible health effects of coal dust from increasing numbers of coal trains.

Seattle-based SSA Marine’s Gateway Pacific Terminal project is currently in the planning stages and isn’t expected to be operating at full capacity until 2019.

By that time, it is estimated that terminal will handle approximately 54 million metric tons of dry bulk commodities per year, most of that being coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana.

Each day that will add nine loaded trains heading to the terminal and nine empties coming from it. The trains are expected to be about 1.6 miles long.

One report Marysville commissioned in 2011 noted that a single long train could simultaneously block all the railroad crossings between First Street and NE 88th Street.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to city leaders in Marysville, who have studied their rail problems for years and recently hired a consultant to research alternatives to the city’s multiple at-grade crossings.

“I think it does line up with a lot of what we’ve studied and ascertained in the last three years or so with regard to the increased wait times,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.

The city also is pushing forward with a $50 million plan to expand the interchange of I-5 and Highway 529 to handle traffic to and from the south end of downtown. The proposal is still in the initial design phase and does not have an established construction schedule, and is largely dependent on funding from the federal and state governments.

“We hope that this report just bolsters the support for that project and others in the city that we’re working on,” Nehring said.

Building overpasses or underpasses to eliminate at-grade crossings — “grade separation” in planning language — is the most effective means of reducing the negative impacts of rail traffic through communities. The new report estimates they will cost anywhere from $50 million to $200 million, paid for mostly with public money.

According to federal law, railroads only can be required to contribute up to 5 percent of that cost.

The report also found that the new coal terminal could create more than 2,000 jobs during the construction period of the terminal, and then 430 jobs directly tied to the operations of the terminal.

“Jobs, regardless of whether we build this terminal, depend on us increasing the capacity and the service here in the Pacific Northwest, and I hope that if nothing else this report highlights the need to keep those jobs here,” said Bill Bryant, a commissioner for the Port of Seattle.

The report points out, however, that most of the jobs created by the terminal project would be in Whatcom County.

Tax revenues also are estimated to come to $92.4 million over the construction period, followed by $11.2 million per year once the terminal is fully operational. The chief beneficiaries would be state government and local jurisdictions near the terminal.

Concern about local impacts took up the bulk of conversation at the regional council’s executive board meeting Thursday.

King County Executive Dow Constantine noted the disproportionate burden the central Puget Sound region would bear while realizing almost none of the benefits.

“It really does border on madness to be digging up a big chunk of North America and then tying up our transportation system across the entire Pacific Northwest and right here in our biggest metropolitan area, and then shipping that material overseas so that others can bury us economically while accelerating the decline of the global climate,” Constantine said.

Environmental impact statements for the terminal project are expected to be completed by next year, at which time a public comment period will begin.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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