Last week — by sheer chance, the day an oil train (harmlessly) derailed in Interbay — the Puget Sound Regional Council released a staff report on the transportation and economic impacts of the Gateway Terminal, a proposed bulk-goods export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. This facility would primarily serve to transport coal from Montana to China, using BNSF’s rail lines to cross the northwest, and the bulk of this study is focused on impacts to road users of increased rail traffic on BNSF’s Puget Sound lines.
In general, I don’t have much to add to the Gateway debate (I think building it would be an appalling mistake, on the basis of coal’s global climate impact), but there are a couple of nuggets about Washington’s rail infrastructure that are important to the state’s future regardless whether or not the Gateway Terminal gets built.
First, “gate-down time” — the average amount of time, per day, that road users will be delayed at grade crossings — will rise significantly throughout the region due to the coal-induced increase in train traffic associated with Gateway. The impacts will be particularly severe in railroad towns with many grade crossings, such as Marysville, Auburn and Puyallup. Second, even if Gateway is not built, freight traffic is expected to reach similarly-problematic levels of gate-down delay by 2035 (as shown in the graphic above), simply through secular growth in economic activity and shipping.
One obvious conclusion is that if Washington had a rational state transportation policy, WSDOT would be busy building overpasses and underpasses at high-impact crossings, both in Puget Sound and around the state. We don’t have such a policy, of course, as the pathetic pavement quality on I-5 in King County testifies every time I drive on it, but along with taking a “fix it first” approach to highways, a sensible statewide transportation policy would include a grant fund to help localities pay for grade-separation projects needed to keep their roads working.
PSRC has helpfully studied all the crossings in our region, and identified 34 high-priority individual grade-separation projects, at $50-$200 million apiece. This would be a great list for the state and region to start working on, but I’d like to see a little more ambition in certain areas. Between Everett and Marysville, in particular, the existing BNSF trackage is characterized by tight curves, extremely old bridges, and an extraordinary number of grade crossings, all of which impose frustrating speed limits on passenger trains, and degrade the safety and quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. A real commitment to the state rail network might include replacing that section of track with new river crossings and full elevation through Marysville.