Coal trains would worsen Marysville’s traffic problem

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

Dan Bates / The HeraldEastbound Marysville traffic, coming off I-5 from both northbound and southbound ramps, jams up at the Fourth Street train crossing April 9.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Eastbound Marysville traffic, coming off I-5 from both northbound and southbound ramps, jams up at the Fourth Street train crossing April 9.

MARYSVILLE — When it comes to traffic backups from more coal trains, Marysville is Snohomish County’s ground zero.

Of 33 street crossings on BNSF Railway’s north-south line in the county, 16 — nearly half — are in Marysville.

Many of them already are congested.

Even now, at Fourth Street downtown, trains cause drivers to wait through the equivalent of three or four red lights, according to one traffic study.

Adding trains would make it that much harder for people who live in the city to get in and out, would delay access to businesses and cause serious problems for fire, ambulance and police service, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.

“The addition of just 16 train trips will block the Marysville main lifeline to I-5 for an additional 2-3 hours a day,” according to a 2011 study by Gibson Traffic Consultants of Everett.

The proposed $650 million Gateway Pacific terminal would serve as a place to send coal, grain, potash and scrap wood for biofuels to Asia. Trains would bring coal from Montana and Wyoming across Washington state to Seattle and north to Bellingham. Supporters point to the jobs that would be generated by the new business.

The terminal also is expected to generate up to 18 more train trips through Snohomish County per day, nine full and nine empty.

This would roughly double the number of trains that currently travel between Everett and Bellingham each day.

Other cities that could be affected by delays from more trains are Edmonds and Stanwood. In Mukilteo and in Everett, the tracks run through underpasses or tunnels at major arterials.

Marysville is in a unique position because the city is long and skinny north and south. The tracks run its entire length, right between Marysville’s two busiest north-south routes, I-5 and State Avenue.

In the case of State, at some crossings, the tracks are right next to the arterial. And State Avenue and I-5 are only about a half-mile apart through much of the city.

How much money will be needed for bridges, underpasses and rail improvements — and who would pay — is a long way from being determined.

Railroads are obligated by federal law to pay only a maximum of 5 percent of the cost of new bridges or tunnels deemed necessary to offset delays from added train traffic, according to Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway in Seattle. The railroad owns the tracks from Seattle to the Canadian border.

“We would work with city officials to identify funding and work with them to see where the funding could come from, whether it’s federal dollars, state dollars or local dollars,” she said.

Wallace said she didn’t know if the company proposing the plan, SSA Marine of Seattle, would pitch in to cover any of the costs. Craig Cole, a spokesman for SSA Marine, declined to comment on the topic.

Even if money is available for road fixes, Marysville’s choices are limited.

Because of the closeness of the tracks to State Avenue and I-5, building overpasses is not even an option, city public works director Kevin Nielsen said.

Officials with Marysville and the state Department of Transportation — to name just a couple of agencies that submitted letters during last fall’s comment period on the plan — asked that potential improvements and costs be addressed in upcoming environmental studies.

From September through January, about 14,000 people registered comments in hearings and in writing with the three agencies reviewing the plan — the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County.

It’s too early to tell exactly what subjects the studies will include, said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the ecology department. It will likely be at least a few months before the topics for study are determined and a year before the first draft of the study is done, Altose said.

This would be followed by another comment period and the final study, which would likely take at least another year.

Many environmental groups, local governments and individuals have come out against the plan. Their concerns, in addition to traffic at crossings, include pollution from coal dust and climate change.

One of the rail crossings is at 271st Street NW in the heart of Stanwood. Mayor Dianne White, however, doesn’t believe the extra trains would cause major problems.

“I don’t see it messing it up that much. They don’t stop, they keep going,” she said.

She added, however, that “I really feel for Marysville. It could completely block the whole city.”

Other crossings in the Silvana area and north of Stanwood could face some rush-hour delays but traffic is lighter there than in Marysville.

On the positive side, the plan is projected to create 4,400 temporary, construction related jobs and 1,200 long-term positions, according to SSA Marine.

“If they don’t build that Cherry Point terminal, (the trains) are going to keep going into Canada like they are now and we don’t get 2,000 jobs,” White said.

Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district includes Marysville as well as Bellingham where the project is planned, came under fire in his re-election campaign last year for backing the coal terminal. At the time, he called it a difficult decision, but said he supported the terminal because of the thousands of unemployed people who live in Whatcom County.

He said in a statement on Friday that “potentially negative outcomes” should be determined in the environmental review.

“If the (study) identifies traffic impacts, the project sponsor would and should be responsible for paying for improvements to mitigate those problems,” he said.

In Edmonds, the city has only two crossings, but one of them sits at the entrance to the ferry dock at the foot of Main Street. The other, at Dayton Street, controls access to much of the waterfront, including the Port of Edmonds marina.

State transportation officials, in written comments on the Gateway Pacific plan last fall, said two of 25 sailings per day were recently eliminated from the Edmonds-Kingston run because waits for trains were causing the boats to run behind schedule.

A plan proposed long ago, but shelved by a lack of funding, called for building a new ferry terminal at the south end of Edmonds where a bridge could be built over the tracks to carry ferry traffic.

The transportation department, in its letter, asked that this plan be re-examined in the environmental study, as well as the possibility of a bridge or tunnel at the Main Street crossing, and restricting train traffic during busy travel periods.

More than twice as many trains run per day on weekdays in south county than from Everett north — 49 compared to 19. Very few of the roads north of Everett, however, have bridges or underpasses at the train tracks.

Of the trains running in both directions between Everett and Seattle, about 35 are freight trains, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. Amtrak Cascades and Empire Builder trains add another six every day, while Sounder commuter trains add another eight on weekdays. Mudslides have canceled an increasing number of these trains in recent years.

Adding 18 trains per day would bring the Monday-Friday total to 67.

About 15 freight trains run per day between Everett and Bellingham, Melonas said. Amtrak Cascades trains add four more for a total of 19 each day.

Adding 18 to this total would bring the total to 37.

Currently, up to four trains per day already carry coal on tracks between Seattle and Canada, Melonas said. Several terminals in British Columbia already ship coal, according to the Coal Association of Canada.

Trains are restricted to 30 mph in Marysville for safety reasons, meaning the barriers are down for six to eight minutes — the equivalent of three or four stoplight cycles — for the longer trains, according to the Gibson study.

The study was done for a group of business owners and residents in Whatcom County, said Tom Ehrlichman, an attorney for Salish Law of Bellingham, the group’s law firm at the time.

In downtown Marysville, the crossing at Fourth Street is less than a quarter-mile from I-5 — too close for an overpass, which would take up four blocks, Nielsen said.

Engineers have looked at tunneling under the tracks, but the dip would have to be steep because of the proximity to the freeway. Also, high ground water at that location would make the underpass susceptible to flooding, he said.

At 88th Street NE, the tracks are just a few feet from State Avenue.

“We could go over it, but you would end up way over on the other side of State Avenue in a neighborhood somewhere, and you’d have to have loop-back ramps over people’s houses to get back to State,” Nielsen said.

Because the tracks at 88th and 116th Street NE are so close to I-5, sometimes, when a long train goes through, traffic backs up onto the freeway, according to the Gibson study.

In fact, the extra trains could negate the benefits of the city’s $2 million widening of 116th completed a few years ago, the study says.

The study shows the street having carried 20,000 automobiles per day in 2011. For 88th Street NE and Fourth Street, the numbers are 30,000 each. Of this 80,000 total, about 7,000 of those were in the evening rush hour.

Because of the problems with building overpasses, city officials feel the best solution is to build an off-ramp from northbound I-5 directly to Highway 529 and the new Ebey Slough Bridge. This ramp would carry northbound drivers over the tracks as they exit the freeway, dropping them directly into the city and keeping them from having to sit at crossings at Fourth, 88th or 116th.

This project would cost about $1.8 million, said state Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett.

So far in this year’s session of the Legislature, no money has been included for the ramp. Nehring said the project could potentially be included in a package to be sent to voters.

Either way, “I’m hopeful,” he said.