State representative Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) was one of several lawmakers and union officials invited by SSA Marine to tour the Cherry Point area and learn the talking points for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. As head of the Washington State Rail Caucus, Manweller contacted The Northern Light to talk about railroad issues and the proposed terminal.
TNL: In Blaine, which is a border town, one of the community concerns with rail traffic is that trains heading over the border have to slow down for a radar detection system to make sure no one is smuggling anything across the border, and there are sometimes long waits at road intersections. Is there any way the rail caucus can help the community mitigate rail traffic through overpasses or other means?
Manweller: One of the things that we learned when we started the rail caucus was that the single most important issue for rail traffic is something called grade separation. You need trains to go over roads or under roads. As long as railroads are crossing roads, you’re going to have traffic, you’re going to have threats to public safety and you’re going to have congestion. We have tried to impress upon the transportation committee exactly how important funding is for grade separation.
One of our frustrations is that the Canadians do grade separation much cheaper and much more efficiently than we do. At the rail caucus we try to get our folks to go up and tour how Canada does grade separation, so we can learn from them. They can do several grade separations for about $20 million, where we sometimes charge as much as $100 million for one. So we need to use our resources more efficiently and that’s what the rail caucus advocates for.
TNL: Our community is working towards a passenger rail stop in Blaine. Does the rail caucus deal with passenger trains?
Manweller: We do. The rail caucus works very closely with a group called All Aboard Washington. They are a member of our caucus, and we have experts on hand when it comes to rail passenger service. We try to talk about how railroads can have dual purposes.
We’re trying to prevent the tearing up of some rail passenger lines south of you, so we can have a connection all the way from Portland to you. We run into NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard), let me tell you. Everybody loves trains, but not in their own backyard. So there’s a lot of effort to remove passenger lines, and we’re trying to stop that. Every time you put cargo on a train, you’re taking a diesel-burning semi off the road. If you have one typical trainload, you are taking about 250 diesel-burning semis off the road. That frees up traffic; it’s better for the environment. We feel the same way about passenger rail. Every time you put someone on rail service, you’re taking a car off the road.
TNL: Are there any actions on the horizon that you think will improve or affect rail service?
Manweller: On the upside, the federal government did just pass a $300 billion transportation package, and we looked at that, and there is a lot of money in there for trains, there is a lot of money for what we call intermodal service, and there’s a lot of money for traffic improvement and grade separation.
We’re going to have to get our Washington stakeholders on the ball applying for those grants and that money. I’ve already started to talk to the railroad companies and our staff about how to do that.
Washington state just passed its own transportation package, and in doing so we funded or recapitalized programs for grade separation for local railroads here in Washington. So you’re going to see some considerable government investment.
On the flip side, BNSF is investing $5 billion of its own money, and a quarter billion of that is here in Washington. So when you talk about trains, it’s a private-public partnership. The government is responsible for part of it, and the private owners of those rail lines are also responsible. So we’re always looking at what is the total combination of investment coming from the public and the private sector.
TNL: Tell me about the tour of the Gateway Pacific Terminal site.
Manweller: We started at Semiahmoo for about four hours of presentations. We heard from rail folks, maritime folks, safety folks and economic folks to get a background of the site, and then we all got on a bus and drove out there. They wanted us to see the site to get a sense of what we were talking about.
Forty percent of all jobs in Washington are tied to trade. We need to continue to expand that infrastructure that allows us to engage in trade, and this Cherry Point site is just another piece in the puzzle that would allow us to compete with the Canadians and the Californians to keep jobs and tax revenue here in Washington. It’s especially important for the folks in Whatcom County who are looking at the loss of hundreds of jobs at the Alcoa plant, and we’re hoping that maybe we can replace those jobs with something else.
TNL: Who else was on the tour?
Manweller: It’s not a partnership that you would expect. What you had were mostly Republican legislators in a room with democratic unions. It was about seven state representatives and senators, and then the longshoreman’s union, the carpenter’s union, some labor unions, people from the governor’s staff, people from the railroad, people from maritime, people from the ports association, and then of course the people who are building this facility at Cherry Point. We had some local officials as well.
It really was an interesting coalition. Republicans in general are trying to eliminate bureaucratic regulations for economic investment. Unions of course are worried about high-wage livable jobs. And so we have common interest. These unions are reeling from the loss of Alcoa, the Republicans are looking for a way to lower the regulatory burden, and so we have common ground in this issue.
TNL: When you say building this facility, you mean the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed by SSA Marine?
Manweller: Yes. We heard from some University of Washington economists, and WWU economists as well, and they said that given the multiplier effect, it would create probably around 2,100 jobs in Whatcom County. That’s a big impact, especially given that the county just lost about 600.
What they’re saying is that when you create a job, the person filling that job comes into the community and spends money and that in turn creates more jobs. The actual site will create about 700 jobs, but it will get multiplied when they spend money in the community and create more jobs, and they said based on their input-output models it’s about 2,100 jobs. And I wish I could remember the figures, but it’s also lots of money in taxes to the schools, the roads, the libraries and everything.
TNL: One of the concerns with the Gateway Pacific project is coal dust. Blaine is historically a fishing and crabbing community that values its marine resources, and there is concern that coal dust will impact the waters off of Cherry Point.
Manweller: We were concerned about that as well, but there were two studies, one done by BNSF and one done by communities in Canada, and both studies showed that the amount of coal dust coming off of trains was immeasurable. So little coal dust was escaping these trains that they couldn’t come up with a number to measure it. So I don’t think, given the research that it’s any longer a legitimate concern.
(Ed. Note: BNSF’s website [http://bit.ly/1NvF2iQ] discusses coal dust emissions from coal trains and the company has stated in court that coal trains can lose as much as 500 lbs. of dust per coal train per mile.)
TNL: I don’t think the concern was as much from the trains as it was from the storing of the coal, and the high winds we see on the coast. Were there any studies from similar facilities that looked at how much coal dust escapes from coal stored onsite?
Manweller: We didn’t get into that. We looked at the movement of the coal, not the storage of the coal. My suspicion here is that, you don’t usually put something off a train, put it on the ground, then put it on a cargo ship – that’s a lot of added expense. It’s much more effective to put something from a train directly onto a ship. So I can’t imagine that we’re going to see large piles of coal anywhere at Cherry Point terminal, but that’s something you can talk to the SSA folks and ask them about. I’m sorry I can’t answer that question.
(Ed. Note: The latest plans from SSA Marine call for a large “open bulk storage” area for coal at the GPT site.)
TNL: Are you optimistic about the future of rail in Washington, given some of the major investment we’re seeing?
Manweller: I’m optimistic. The attention is on rail, and people are talking about it. It’s always about resources, which are finite, but what we’ve seen are that lines are getting revitalized, massive amounts of investment from private sector railroads, contributions from the state, so clearly across the board, we’re seeing a re-emphasis on rail, and I think it’s for efficiency reasons and environmental reasons.