By Lyndsie Kiebert
The Idaho Department of Lands hosted two hearings Wednesday on BNSF’s proposed second rail bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. Permitting agencies — including IDL, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps — were in attendance to hear public testimony.
The hearings were held specifically to discuss BNSF’s compliance with the Lake Protection Act, which regulates encroachments and activities on, in or above navigable lakes in Idaho. IDL, under the LPA, must grant BNSF an encroachment permit in order for them to move forward with construction.
The evening hearing, held at the Sandpoint Middle School gym, saw about 150 attendees. Permitting agencies made opening statements, and then other public agencies were welcomed to make comment. Bonner County Commissioners Glen Bailey and Dan McDonald both spoke in favor of the proposal, citing a need for more efficiency in Sandpoint’s rail situation.
BNSF presented in conjunction with Pierre Bordenave of Jacobs Engineering, which worked with BNSF to create the proposal. He said assumptions that more track in Sandpoint would bring increased rail traffic are unfounded.
“This is not a case of ‘Field of Dreams’ — ‘if you build it, they will come,” he said.
He said traffic will increase regardless, based on demand, and the new bridge is necessary to minimize impact on the surrounding community.
Comments from the general public saw both sides of the issue, with a number of people on the anti-proposal side requesting the U.S. Coast Guard require an environmental impact statement (EIS) from BNSF prior to granting any permits. The statement would provide an analysis of possible direct and indirect impacts the project may produce.
“I think an (EIS) is so important, and I don’t think it’s asking too much that we have a high-bar environmental review,” said Idaho Conservation League representative Matt Nykiel. He added that he has yet to see any analysis proving that the second rail bridge will relieve traffic delays at rail crossings, as BNSF has been saying in their promo material.
IDL accepted public comment on BNSF’s proposal for nearly 90 days leading up to Wednesday’s hearings. Though that comment period is over, you can still access the BNSF application on IDL’s website at www.idl.idaho.gov/lakes-rivers/lake-protection/index.html.