Coal impacts feared in Skagit County

Local business owners wary of more train traffic

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Sitting in front of Cafe Burlington's front window — where no fewer than five posters protest increased coal traffic — restaurant owner Brad Whaley can see two rail lines less than two blocks away.

Thinking about how an additional 18 trains would affect his business and many others along the line between Ferndale and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, Whaley's opinions on the proposed coal export terminal matched those of his expressive storefront.

"Obviously, it's going to be devastating for Mount Vernon and Burlington, but I think Marysville will be the most affected," he said.

Just how much effect the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would have on Skagit County's economy is still up for debate.

Whaley is among more than 90 Skagit County business owners, business leaders and city councils that submitted concerns about the project during the scoping period for the project's upcoming environmental review.

The scoping process was put on by the three co-lead agencies for the project's environmental review: Whatcom County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Before the 120-day scoping period ends on Jan. 22, more than 14,000 comments will have been received by the agencies in respect to the terminal's potential impacts, benefits and reasonable alternatives.

One of the chief economic concerns of local entities is how additional train traffic -- if not mitigated -- could cause added backups at roads bisecting the tracks, hampering customer and commercial traffic to and from businesses.

A letter from the Port of Skagit Board of Commissioners stated that a great deal of economic activity in the county is dependent on east-to-west traffic movement of cars and trucks. The commissioners noted that without mitigation of traffic delays caused by trains, Skagit would take more of a hit than benefit economically.

"Let there be no doubt, the Gateway project as currently proposed will have a very significant negative impact on our local economy ." the letter states.

"This problem could be at least partially solved by the construction of overpasses at certain key locations," it continues.

Carol Declercq, who co-owns Custom Interior Design in downtown Mount Vernon, said she opposes the terminal for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the potential effect on her business.

"That would really hurt, I'd probably just end up moving my store to somewhere it wouldn't be an issue," she said.

Declercq's husband and shop co-owner, Jeff, however, supports the terminal. He said the waits will likely be minimal, and people will find ways around them.

"It's hard to judge," he said. "I like economic development, and sometimes that comes at a price."

In a recent letter from the City of Burlington to the three agencies in charge of the environmental review, significant road traffic concerns were brought up alongside those relating to congestion on the tracks themselves.

Citing a 2006 State Rail Capacity study by the state Transportation Commission, the letter posits that the rail segments between Burlington and Ferndale would exceed practical capacity by 2015. The study also showed that to manage demand, "railroads were using pricing to turn away lower-profit freight in favor of intermodal and coal traffic," the letter states.

Burlington noted that businesses in Skagit County are already seeing the effects of increasing coal and oil rail service, and agricultural and manufacturing businesses could be harmed by more coal trains.

A positive economic impact on Skagit County in the terminal's startup would come from locals getting jobs in construction or operations and local spending by employees, along with associated sales tax revenues.

Labor leaders and others involved with the terminal project say workers would generally come from Whatcom County union halls first, then from Skagit and beyond.

Of the $7 million in property tax revenues from the project, most would go to specific funds in Whatcom County and $1.67 million would go to the state general fund, according to a tax benefit analysis performed by FCS Group for the terminal developers.

The review of the proposal to build the terminal is nearing the completion of a vital starting stage.

Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said it will be at least a year before a draft environmental impact statement will be ready. With that draft document and more local studies, the economic impact of the Gateway Pacific Terminal on Skagit County should become a little clearer.