How many trains will cross through Bellingham if a shipping terminal is constructed by SSA Marine at Cherry Point with the capacity to export as much as 56 million tons of coal per year to Asian markets? How many coal trains will cross through the city if an expansion of coal shipping capacity is completed at Roberts Bank south of Vancouver, British Columbia?
These seem like story problems in weights and measures you might give to students in a high school Physics class, but—surprisingly—uncertainty exists in the answers. In a letter to the governor, the head of Burlington Northern Santa Railway confessed, “We do not know what the net effect in train traffic would be.”
A new analysis attempts to get at the answer.
Early in the widening discussion about coal export, labor and industry leaders noted that the trains were coming through the region anyway, bound for terminals already permitted to ship coal. We get the traffic, they argued, but not the economic benefit.
Analysis, produced by the public advocacy group Communitywise Bellingham, challenges that argument, projecting that a full buildout of the Robert Banks capacity in Canada would not yield anything near the train traffic necessary to supply the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point.
Planned expansions at Canadian coal ports would add one to two additional trains through Bellingham per day, at most, according to the report, including both loaded northbound trains and empty southbound trains returning to Powder River Basin coal mines. At full capacity, the proposed Gateway Pacific export terminal would require 18 additional trains to pass through Whatcom County daily—nine full, nine empty. These trains would measure at least 1.5 miles long, weigh 17,000 tons, and consist of 125-150 cars each.
“Our analysis shows that little, if any, additional coal traffic would pass through Whatcom County to Canada in the absence of Gateway Pacific Terminal,” said Kim Lund, one of the report’s authors. “The combined capacity for coal exports from B.C. terminals will be 69.5 million tons per year/annum when ongoing expansion work at all terminals is completed in 2015.”
The GPT facility would nearly match that capacity, she said, with nearly all trains delivering Wyoming coal through the United States.
“GPT by itself would be the same size as all of B.C.‘s current coal terminals combined,” Lund noted. “Even taking into account possible port expansions, B.C. would have to abandon nearly its entire base of Canadian customers in favor of exclusive service to U.S. competitors in order to generate the same amount of train traffic through Bellingham as GPT would. Despite this, GPT proponents continue to assert that Bellingham would experience the same level of coal train traffic with or without GPT.“
The full report includes a detailed port-by-port breakdown of export capacity and current contracts. Without significant track and crossing improvements, the wait times in Bellingham could be as high as 6 to 7 minutes per train, an average traffic delay of two to three hours daily, the report estimated.
The claim that the same number of “trains are coming anyway” and simply going to Canada if GPT is not built is false and an attempt to avoid considering the infrastructure necessary to support the facility, the report authors noted. The claim serves both to allay public concerns about the impacts of coal freight while attempting to dodge the duty to mitigate those impacts, Shannon Wright commented. Wright is the executive director of Communitywise Bellingham.
“Inclusion of the railroad infrastructure needed for the terminal is the only guarantee Bellingham can obtain that participation in mitigation costs by the beneficiaries of the project will have a fair hearing,” Wright said.
“In the event that the railroad infrastructure escapes inclusion in these discussions, the cost of mitigation will be almost exclusively on the local taxpayer,” she warned.
“Our community is already facing heavy financial strains and as a result, we continue to make difficult choices that impact our schools, city infrastructure, services, and the redevelopment of the waterfront,” Lund agreed. “We are concerned that the costs required to mitigate GPT’s train impacts would be added to the local residents’ tax burden rather than becoming a project expense, making a challenging situation even more tenuous.”
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