By Matt Morrison
Commerce via rail is a vital part of our economic future. Not just for northern Idaho, but for the entire Northwest. Investments in rail infrastructure increase access to foreign markets, particularly Asia, for industrial, consumer and importantly, agriculture products. Much of it comes from Montana, Washington and right here in Idaho, creating jobs and driving growth thorough out this region.
However, bottlenecks and congested rail infrastructure have had a profound impact on our region’s rail system. Those impacts place serious strain on our economy, compromising the most efficient, environmentally friendly, and economical way to get both freight and passengers to where they need to be.
One such bottleneck can be found at a crossing of Lake Pend Oreille, where several lines of train traffic running from both directions come together at a single-track bridge. The result of this convergence is a dynamic wherein trains running in one direction are forced to pull off to wait for trains running in the opposite direction to pass. It forces these trains to slow down, power down and idle excessively in pull-offs, losing time and money as they wait for the bottleneck to clear.
It’s a situation that is detrimental to the free flow of commerce throughout the northwest and limits our ability to expand markets for local and regional products. It also causes delays, increases wait-times for drivers at nearby road crossings, leads to more emissions.
It’s also, as it turns out, an easy problem to fix.
The Sandpoint Junction Connector Project would add a second bridge parallel to the existing crossing. It would relieve the congestion that has developed in the area and, as a result, deliver improved efficiency and economic benefit not just near the crossing in Idaho, but across the entire Pacific Northwest.
Reliable rail infrastructure plays an important role in any growing economy, moving raw materials, manufactured goods, agricultural products, and passengers from place to place more efficiently than any other mode of transport. A single train can take 280 trucks off the road, and 60 trains cross this section of track every single day.
Freight moving via rail instead of truck relieves stress on crowded roadways. But more than that, freight rail also helps secure a more predictable and reliable supply chain for consumers and producers alike. The trains traveling on this section of track carry the raw materials that enable manufacturers to do their jobs, and they carry the finished products from those manufacturers to market. They carry the energy we use to power our homes and businesses, and the food we use to feed our families.
The Sandpoint Junction Connector Project would take the pressure off this critical section of track. It would restore fluidity to the system, and it would do so without having to draw upon public money. BNSF is prepared to invest around $100 million to make the project a reality.
The U.S. Coast Guard is charged with reviewing the Sandpoint Junction Connector Project application. Last month, they released a draft assessment indicating that the project brings no significant environmental impacts. They also stated unequivocally that the new bridge would not increase the risks of any kind spill in the area — a direct rebuke to opponents that have resisted the project based on unfounded and frankly alarmist fears related to oil and coal trains moving through the area.
As the Coast Guard found in its assessment, this project would not result in more coal or oil trains moving through the area, nor would it result in an increase in traffic of any kind on its own. It would make regional rail safer by reducing the amount of starting and stopping required to navigate the bridge, and would eliminate rail emissions by reducing the amount of time trains have to spend idling to make it through the region.
This project is important to Idaho’s future, and the Coast Guard should be commended for managing its review process in an efficient and timely manner. As the review process continues, stakeholders should continue to focus on the clear benefits of the project and move quickly toward approval.
Matt Morrison is CEO of The Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, a nonprofit created in 1991 by the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, to increase the economic well-being and quality of life for all citizens of the region, while maintaining and enhancing our natural environment.
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