On The Lake: Let me get this straight

By Shannon Williamson
Reader Columnist

I’m going to be straight up with you – this article is about the proposed BNSF rail bridge expansion. Again. This is a BIG deal, so you’re probably going to be hearing about it from me on the regular because there are a lot of moving parts and timelines, and the rationale for the whole thing is questionable in general.

Shannon Williamson.

First, if you haven’t written to the U.S. Coast Guard asking that they conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed BNSF rail bridge expansion project, PLEASE do so! You can find a link to talking points and contact information for the Coast Guard on LPOW’s homepage (www.lpow.org).

Rather than re-hashing why a full EIS is most definitely needed (please see the March 15 and April 5 editions of the Reader for more info), I wanted to spend the rest of my word count on BNSF’s rationale for expanding bridge and track infrastructure in our neck of the woods and how my brain is processing this.

BNSF asserts that double tracking rail bridges will relieve congestion of traffic due to Sandpoint’s bottleneck where rail lines converge before heading over the lake. If I knew nothing about the state of our rail crossings in Sandpoint, I would take this statement at face value and call it good.

Unfortunately for us, the vast majority of our rail crossings are “at grade,” meaning they do not go over or under the tracks. Let’s break this down. Double tracking provides the infrastructure necessary to increase traffic. As traffic increases, trains will have the ability to move in both directions simultaneously, which is after all the intended consequence. This is great for moving products from point A to point B more efficiently. There’s just one thing – we’ll all still be sitting behind closed gates watching products move from point A to point B.

BNSF’s counterpoint to this argument is to say that they have no way (!) of predicting changes in train traffic volume in the years to come as it’s all market driven. It might go up, it might go down, who knows? WHO KNOWS?

Again, I could see myself head nodding at this, but… BNSF’s own permit application to the Army Corps states “The project need is based on continued growth of freight rail service demands in the northern tier high volume traffic corridor between the Midwest (Chicago Terminus) and the West Coast…Rail traffic volumes have risen steadily for the past three decades…” It seems to me that BNSF is counting on rail traffic increasing, not decreasing. I also seriously doubt that BNSF would undertake a project of this magnitude and expense if they just weren’t sure.

What does this particular storyline have to do with water quality? Not a whole lot if you ignore the potential for a significant increase in the transport of hazardous materials next to and over our local waterways. What it should illuminate is the absolute need for a thorough review of 1) the purpose and need of the proposed action; 2) a description of the affected environments; 3) a range of alternatives to the proposed action; and 4) an analysis of environmental impacts of the alternatives. In other words, an EIS!

Should we just take BNSF’s word that their proposed rail expansion effort will make all of our lives better or should an EIS be used to lay all of the facts out on the line for permitting agencies to base their decisions on?

I’m going with the latter.

Shannon Williamson is the executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and president of the Sandpoint City Council.

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