Preparing for Cherry Point

Railroads have powered the American West for more than a century, teasing out a mixed legacy. At an 1892 banquet at the Bayview Hotel, James J. Hill, coaxed by a rabble of city boosters, claimed that Everett would be the terminus for the Great Northern Railway. Seattle seized the prize the following year. Fickle and hidebound suitors, railroads are historically over-promising, vague and indispensable. It’s a narrative that should inform policymakers as Washington inches forward with a proposed coal-export facility at Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham.

Wednesday afternoon, a handful of legislators, running on post-Election Day fumes, convened a press conference at Seattle’s Pier 70 to spotlight Cherry Point. The cudgel is a Jan. 21 deadline to wrap up comments and public hearings for the scoping phase of the terminal’s environmental impact statement, with lawmakers concerned about the lack of state-agency coordination (and a couple Department of Ecology staffers laboring in a windowless office does not a comprehensive report make.)

The get-it-together push is led by state Rep. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle and includes Rep. Jeff Morris of Mount Vernon and Anacortes Rep. Kristine Lytton. They are elbowing Gov. Gregoire to create a multi-agency task force to flag all of the environmental, transportation and economic impacts. Disparate agencies demand a center of gravity and leadership to wide-angle the potential fallout. And the overhang of Jan. 21 is incentive enough to transcend parochialism and develop an inter-agency response.

“The people of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett are just now awakening to the stunning implications of the proposal to make Washington a major player in the global coal export industry,” Carlyle said. “As an export-driven state, we have a fiduciary obligation to study the economic, transportation and environmental externalities and impacts given that this would affect nearly every aspect of our state’s economy for generations.”

Incremental impacts and externalities — what the rest of us call “how this affects me” — must be gauged, rather than default to trust-me mode. Core data illustrate the need to be vigilant.

Cherry Point means 18 more trains a day. Each train is a mile and a quarter long with approximately 150 open cars. Increased capacity could affect the state’s agricultural sector, with long-haul freight more cost-effective for Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Will prices go up for orchardists in Yakima shipping apples to the Port of Seattle? What about Boeing and Amtrak passenger service?

The coal-export fallout is a slow earthquake. It might never be felt. Or it could a harbinger of the Big One. Better to exhibit leadership, do what we can, be prepared.

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