PSRC takes on coal trains

Bias is embedded in every institution’s DNA. “Think tanks” are usually PR shops underwritten by corporations or deep-pocketed ideologues. In navigating disputes, the best analysis flow from the entity saddled with the least political baggage.

That force of objectivity informs the latest news from the Puget Sound Regional Council. As The Herald’s Bill Sheets reports, the PSRC will spend up to $100,000 to review the economic impacts of the proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal near Bellingham. It’s encouraging news for Northwesterners overwhelmed by competing narratives on coal trains and the ripple effect on jobs, transportation and the environment.

The PSRC’s mission is to plan years, even decades, ahead for economic development, regional transportation and growth management (all positives on the predilection scale). The study, which should be wrapped up by February 2014, will provide data and analysis for the PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan. Perhaps more significant timing-wise, the report dovetails with Gateway’s 2014 environmental impact statement.

The PSRC’s review will take into account current and future effects on trade and development, land use, employment, property values and railroad congestion within Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap counties. Surface traffic at railroad crossings also will get the once over. (Analysts should use Marysville as a case study.) With 40 at-grade crossings in Snohomish County alone, 18 additional trains a day, each a mile and a quarter long with 150 uncovered cars, will cause, well, an impact.

Sheets quotes Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. “An economic analysis of Whatcom County is one thing. This will do an economic analysis for the Puget Sound region, per se,” Stephanson said.

An all-inclusive question is what infrastructural fixes are necessary to absorb these impacts. Additional rail traffic is a barometer of economic health. Coal trains or no, policymakers need to prepare for increased capacity.

Washington does have a state rail plan and the PSRC hosts a Regional Freight Mobility Roundtable. Last week, the group heard from Chris Eaves of Seattle’s Department of Transportation. The Seattle DOT has its own Coal Train Traffic Impact Study that was issued in October, focusing on the city’s northern waterfront and Safeco Field/SODO neighborhood. That report examined essentials, such as gate down times. If Gateway (no gate-pun intended) is green-lighted, additional gate down times by 2026 would rise anywhere from more than an hour to three hours. What about access for emergency vehicles? Best to not go there.

The PSRC, led by Snohomish County’s most well-regarded executive, Bob Drewel, is the ideal institution to separate the wheat from the bias. A whole lot hinges on its report.

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