In Our View: Coal Trains: Learn, Speak Up

Communities understandably demand a voice in the discussion

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As Pacific Northwesterners learn more about the proposed expansion of coal exports through this region, there are two fundamental facts we already know:Affected communities deserve a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion.

The more information, the better.

On that second point, it was encouraging to see BNSF Railway Chairman and CEO Matthew Rose visit Vancouver and other Northwest communities last week to offer his perspective on the controversial subject. Among Rose's comments, eight to 12 daily coal-hauling trains, perhaps 12 to 16, could be added in Clark County, not the 20 to 60 that many critics predict. (Currently, about three or four coal trains pass through here daily.) Also, Rose believes two or three coal-export facilities could be built in the Northwest, not the original six that were proposed. (One proposal has been shelved.) And he said current coal shipments would be increased by about 50 million to 100 million tons annually, not the 150 million tons or more that others have projected.

That, of course, is just one side of the story, and it's good to know. But there are other sides as well, and several local governments have vigorously and appropriately expressed their desire to participate in the debate. Significant environmental and traffic-congestion consequences hang in the balance.

On June 21, Clark County commissioners sent a letter to the state Department of Ecology and to Cowlitz County describing their concerns about a proposed coal expert terminal in Longview, which would increase coal train traffic through here. On July 16, the Vancouver City Council followed suit, expressing three requests of state officials. The city wants to be a party of record to any environmental studies about coal shipments. It wants a cumulative, area-wide analysis of the impacts of any new terminals. And the city asks for at least one public hearing in Clark County on each environmental impact statement.

These not only are reasonable requests, they also meet minimum expectations that voters have when they elect politicians.

Railroads have long played a crucial role in local and regional economies. Here in Clark County, railroad commerce is a major component in massive expansion efforts at the Port of Vancouver. And the railroads are playing a key role in plans for Vancouver's waterfront redevelopment project. At the same time, municipalities are justified in demanding facts and public hearings about expanded rail activities.

Another good example, although unrelated to the coal industry, is unfolding in Tacoma. The $90 million Point Defiance Bypass rail project appeals to many people, especially Amtrak passengers. The plan is to straighten the rail route for passenger trains through Tacoma and accelerate train speeds to as high as 79 mph in some stretches.

However, folks in Lakewood or DuPont are understandably concerned. According to The News Tribune of Tacoma, the proposal includes 17 at-grade crossings, few with overpasses or underpasses to separate rail and vehicular traffic. As if to add insult to injury, neither Lakewood nor DuPont is scheduled to receive an Amtrak terminal in the project. Thus, residents there are demanding more information and a greater role in the planning. As well they should, if they really care about their community.

As long as affected cities are allowed to learn about proposed rail projects, and participate in the planning, there's reason to expect a suitable compromise can be worked out. Obviously, no plan will make everyone happy, but the learning and the speaking up must not be constrained.