Theairport: What if a railroad ran through it?

Published on Thu, Feb 23, 2006 by eg Olson

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The airport: What if a railroad ran through it?

By Meg Olson

If proponents of moving the railroad off the coastal route as it heads north into Canada had not held back their comments until the end, they may well have derailed a recent public meeting looking for ideas on alternative uses for Blaine’s airport land.

“We thought it best to just observe,” said Paul LeMay from the back of the community center when Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic asked, if anyone was there from the group that had sent him an email regarding the ambitious proposal to relocate the rail line along the truck route and across the border at Pacific Highway. Every one of the two dozen people attending the open house meeting February 16, turned to look.

“We are looking at an ambitious idea of a passenger terminal that would straddle the border,” said LeMay. “There are all kinds of opportunities that open up.”

He explained that while they have not begun discussions with the railroad, his group Semiahmoo Peninsula Citizens for Public Safety had identified a number of safety risks on the existing route that the railway would need to address that would make it economically feasible, if not advisable, to move the line. For example, the Mud Bay bridge is at the end of its useful life and it will cost $20 million to replace. “That’s opening up a leveraging opportunity for a rerouting inland,” LeMay said.

“It’s intriguing,” said Tomsic, and other audience members were interested in how the proposal could “put Blaine back together” by eliminating the Bell Road and Marine Drive crossings. LeMay said the line would go below grade along the truck route and would not add another crossing at H Street.

LeMay said they didn’t have enough details to add anything concrete to a discussion of the uses of the airport land, but that he hoped to plant the seeds of “a synergy between our communities,” and promised to keep city council informed of the proposal’s progress.
Earlier discussions of possible alternatives for the airport land were not so ambitious. Proposals fell into essentially two camps: transportation uses and recreation.

Bill Dodd said it was time to revisit a rough plan developed 20 years ago that would see the current 30-acre airport become a “truck stop” that included services for truckers, warehouses and customs brokers. “All would be related to our trucking industry which is here to stay,” he said. “It would be very lucrative and create jobs.”

Jeff Schamel said people had been given a false image of a truck-related facility. “You make it sound like there’s going to be a bunch of drunken truck drivers,” he said, when truckers on the road were more interested in a place to eat and buy gas than beer and pornography. “Blaine takes in a penny for every gallon of gas we sell,” he said. “The trucks are here and they’re not leaving. Keep them here and the income they could bring in is unimaginable.”

Jo Slivinski saw things moving away from transportation uses. “When I think economic and cultural renaissance the image that sprang into my mind was Granville Island in Vancouver,” she said. Designed around the existing airport facilities she said the property could become a mix of “exciting architecture, shops, galleries, restaurants and a hotel,” connected to the city’s downtown and marina with bike and pedestrian paths. “Make it really magical,” she said.

The Runway Park proposed by Jerry Gay followed a similar model. “Can you imagine the world‘s largest cinema screen?” he asked, at the end of a runway turned pedestrian boulevard. He saw the property converted to “an artistic place for people to come and spend time in Blaine,” perhaps including a bandstand and performance spaces in what are now hangars. “The main thing is having people come to Blaine. If you had this facility and used it the town would make money and it would bring people here,” he said.

Whatever the final use of the property several speakers urged the city and the airport alternative land use committee to spend the money and bring in a consultant so all feasible alternatives are fully explored. “There are experts out there who can tell you the highest and best use,” said Dennis Hill, organizer of the petition that led to an advisory ballot in November and voter endorsement of the current investigation into the feasibility of closing the airport and converting the land to another use.

Tomsic explained when city council came to a decision on the airport’s future the alternative study would be balanced by a report from city legal staff on the legal and financial feasibility of shutting down the airport, and a report from the airport commission on how the proposed airport expansion would be itself an economic asset. “I think it would be a mistake to look at this 33-acres in isolation,” Tomsic said. “You have to do something compatible with the properties around it.” He also mentioned some of the suggestions that evening could co-exist with the expanded airport. “If the airport expands it moves to the south,” he said. “That opens up property for commercial and industrial use.”

Airport tenant and pilot Don Nelson asked the committee and the people of Blaine to look at some of these uses incorporated into or located beside an expanded airport. “Why can’t we have both?” he asked. “Why can’t we have it all?”