Calls for EIS choose alarmism over analysis

By Ken Brown
Reader Contributor

In a recent article piece, environmentalist Matt Nykiel asserted that an Environmental Impact Statement should be conducted prior to U.S. Coast Guard approval of BNSF’s proposed rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille. And while no one can doubt Mr. Nykiel’s passion or commitment to an ideology, the arguments contained in his column were misleading, hypocritical and generally unconvincing.

Opponents of the Sandpoint Junction Connector Project – another way of referring to a proposed second rail bridge running parallel to BNSF’s existing bridge spanning Lake Pend Oreille – are ringing alarm bells in demanding a delay. But a closer look at their argument shows those alarm bells are just that: alarmist, and not tied to real concerns. 

As the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 73, I am acutely aware of the importance of an efficient transportation system. The great northern rail corridor is critical for many of the companies and proposed projects all along the rail corridor that we work with. If those businesses are thriving it means more work for my members. The Sandpoint rail bridge is a major choke point in the rail corridor that must be fixed.

At the core of the plea of those who oppose the project is the claim that a second bridge would increase traffic and, in doing so, lead to more commodities they deem undesirable (namely, coal and crude oil) traveling through our communities. Increased traffic, they claim, brings with it increased risk of incidents like collisions, derailments or spills.

This talking point is either intentionally alarmist and misleading or incredibly uninformed.

The Coast Guard has already conducted extensive review of this proposal in recent years. In doing so, they found a few things to be true. First and foremost, adding a second bridge would not increase rail traffic in any meaningful way. Rail traffic doesn’t go up or down based on the addition of a single bridge across a vast, nationwide network. Supply and demand, commodity prices and other market dynamics drive traffic. New bridges don’t.

Given that the new bridge won’t lead to new traffic, opposition claims focused on increased risk of incidents simply don’t hold water. Far from creating more risk, adding a second bridge will reduce the volatility currently present at the Lake Pend Oreille crossing by reducing congestion at what is currently a known and troublesome bottleneck. Only one train at a time can cross the lake now, and that means traffic heading in both directions must stop, idle (creating emissions all the while), wait and re-enter traffic on ongoing basis. 

Congestion causes problems when it comes to safe and efficient rail transport. This bridge will alleviate congestion, make traffic more manageable, and reduce risk. To invoke the names of recent rail incidents like Mosier or Lac-Mégantic in opposing this bridge is deceiving, alarmist, and inaccurate.

Aside from misleading scare tactics, Mr. Nykiel’s core argument in favor of delay is tied to the number of people who submitted comments in favor of his position. The piece dings BNSF for an “election-style media blitz,” but fails to note the fact that supporters of Mr. Nykiel’s position have been running a campaign designed to flood the public comment process with form letters for more than a year. 

Supporters of the second Lake Pend Oreille bridge recognize the importance of fluid and efficient rail infrastructure. Rail plays a crucial role in shipping far, far more than energy. Farmers need rail to get their crops to market. Manufacturers depend on rail to move both raw materials and finished products to consumers. Even every day commuters need a functioning rail system, whether they’re riding Amtrak or waiting at a train crossing.

Despite what people like Mr. Nykiel would have you believe, it is possible to care deeply about our community’s resources while also believing that a second bridge is needed. The two goals are not mutually exclusive; they can – and must – co-exist. 

The Coast Guard’s review process, to date, has been thorough and effective. They’ve already found both environmental and traffic-related concerns to be unfounded and noted the potential benefits of approving the second bridge. An open and intense review process when considering a project like this is more than warranted, it’s essential. At this point, though, adding another layer of review in the form of an EIS would drastically delay an important project without justification.

Further delay isn’t the answer. Sandpoint Junction should move forward.

Ken Brown is a business manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 73 representing Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. He currently lives in Post Falls, Idaho.

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