Counting rail cars | Opinion

Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred, one hundred one, one hundred two. The final car, a bulk carrier, rumbled past and the barrier lifted. Until Marysville is once again bisected by the moving wall of BNSF.

I was counting cars at the 4th Street crossing, the most heavily traveled of Marysville’s controlled crossings. At present, about 15 trains per day ply the tracks linking Everett and Bellingham but plans are afoot to more than double that to 33 trains per day.

Coal for export originating in Montana and Wyoming is driving the increase and some of the nation’s heaviest hitting movers and shakers are backing it. Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern-Santa Fe will do the hauling while New York’s Goldman-Sachs is backing construction of a deep-water terminal to handle the coal at Bellingham’s Cherry Point.

No doubt about it, exporting coal will give the economy a needed boost. Miners and railroaders will profit. Construction of the $700 million Cherry Point coal and grain facility will shed disposable income on the northern reaches of the I-5 corridor. But whenever there’s an up-side there has to be a down-side.

Given the shortage of overpasses and underpasses, more than doubling rail traffic at Marysville’s crossings would all but paralyze east-west commerce. Historically, rails were a lifeline for Marysville’s economy along with that of every other town along BNSF routes. That was a time of few cars and relaxed schedules. Today’s planners are forced to look at grade-crossings as potential choke-points for burgeoning traffic volumes. Will other towns along the route be similarly afflicted?

I pulled up Google Earth and zoomed in on BNSF tracks north of Everett. Scrolling northward, I took notes on every underpass and overpass between Marysville and the Canadian border. A few routes were designed to pass under or over the rails, some skirted river banks under rail bridges or plunged downhill over a rail tunnel. A mere 10 of them are of any note. Any others are restricted to limited traffic or pedestrians only.

There will be a real crisis if the Montana-Wyoming coal is ducted through Marysville. Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want to let a good crisis go to waste.” Commenting on global environmental issues, Hillary Clinton said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” So it is with the rail issue. If we want relief from rail-induced gridlock, we can’t afford to waste this crisis.

The issue would be serious even without other predictable increases in rail traffic. Oil destined for Anacortes’ Tesoro refinery from the mountain states is slated to add two trains per month. Population growth will certainly mean more trash-trains headed for the big Central Washington landfill. And fuel costs are causing shippers who previously relied on trucks to switch to rails. Coal trains would max-out at about 125 cars, longer than the average train now passing the 4th Street crossing.

Considering the amount of investment projected for the coal mines and Cherry Point facility, a bit should be set aside for easing crisis-level inconveniences caused along the way. Two, maybe three new overpasses or underpasses at choke-points between Everett and Bellingham would certainly be a minimum. The message to BNSF from affected municipalities should be, “You want to double rail traffic? Okay, then here’s the deal.”

Hold-ups at rail crossings halt emergency vehicles, affect catching ferries, work and school schedules, delay deliveries, melt ice cream and frazzle tempers.  With each train made of upwards of a hundred cars, every train traps enough drivers and passengers at crossings to account for hundreds of wasted man-hours.

Remedies won’t come easy because BNSF has a record of playing hardball when faced with challenges. Brett Emison, investigative reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune documented BNSF’s staggering patter on misconduct aimed at covering up its role in the deaths of four young people whose car collided with a train because of a faulty crossing gate.

In other cases, Burlington Northern Santa Fe sought to simply close public and private crossings after accidents happened. A spokesperson said, “Concern for the safety of employees, as well as the traveling public, has always been a number-one priority for the railroad, and our closure (of crossings) is further proof of our efforts to reduce accidents.” Hmmm. BNSF’s reactions to accidents have been to (1) close at-grade crossings, forcing motorists and other to take alternative routes; (2) force construction of parallel connecting roads; or very rarely (3) create bridges or underpasses. The more costly remedies erode corporate profits.

A few crossings such as Marysville’s 4th Street and 88th Street crossings already experience intolerable blockage by passing trains. Given what the future holds, relief is necessary. Economic reality would likely preclude fixing both crossings but the health of our community requires calls for a remedy at one or the other of the sites.

If we let this crisis-point pass, BNSF will dictate the shape of Marysville’s future purely according to their business plan. The time is ripe for bringing federal, state, community and corporate interests to the table to chart a solution.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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