When railroads began laying track across the American landscape in the 1800s, laws were written and arrangements made to give this game-changing technology the ability to connect a vast and rugged country. The legacy of that environment exists today as railroads have unique legal protection and latitude going back to that time.
That 19th century reality is landing on Puget Sound communities as they prepare for the impact of coal trains running through the region up to Bellingham or British Columbian ports and then off to Asia. Push against it as they might, it’s unlikely coal train opponents will have any more luck than did settlers, Native Americans and other interests in the early years of rail expansion. The coal trains are here. More are coming. That’s just how it works.
Marysville faces a unique challenge when the trains begin to rumble through town. It’s split in half by the tracks, which are situated five blocks east of I-5 but only one or two blocks west of its primary north-south retail corridor, State Avenue. As any resident or visitor to Marysville knows, there’s no avoiding traffic stops and delays when coming into town off of I-5.
Estimates of rail trip counts when the coal trains begin running in earnest are that they will double, bringing the total number of traffic interruptions to between 40 and 50 every day. That’s nearly one every half hour all day and through the night. Asking the railroads to move tracks, build bridges or adjust schedules to accommodate auto traffic is likely to fall on deaf ears given the legacy they enjoy.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring has seen this coming and has been lobbying hard to secure funding for a new onramp and offramp that would connect I-5 to the newly expanded Highway 529 bridge entering the south end of town. That access point would avoid the railroad entirely, bringing people in and out of town on the east side of the tracks, where the vast majority of his citizens live and most of his businesses operate.
The idea has a lot of appeal beyond just addressing the coal train impact since there’s potential for the city to develop around that new southern entry point. At the north end of the Highway 529 bridge, the city developed Ebey Waterfront Park and boat ramp. Next to it sits a struggling retail center and other acreage that could be assembled and organized into a viable commercial and retail center similar to Mill Creek Town Center or the up and coming Bothell Landing. A new and very appealing city center could be born and Marysville reshaped for decades if the ramps and plans could be put in place. Traffic relief to other Marysville and Tulalip exits on I-5 would be welcomed with the addition of these new ramps.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear timeline or funding for it. It’s an idea that Nehring has worked on in detail with Economic Alliance Snohomish County and local legislators Nick Harper, Steve Hobbs and Mike Sells as they try to include this project in future state transportation packages. Time is burning, though. If the solution comes too long after the coal trains come through town, businesses, real estate values and quality of life will all suffer.
Done simultaneously with the coal trains, it could be reshape Marysville in a favorable way for decades.
Tom Hoban is CEO of The Coast Group of Companies. Contact him at 425-339-3638 or firstname.lastname@example.org.