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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Local view: Oil trains, waterfront redevelopment can coexist

The Columbian
Published: March 1, 2014, 4:00pm

Oil trains are already traveling through our community and will continue to do so, regardless of whether or not Tesoro-Savage’s proposed oil terminal is approved. What’s in question is whether or not any of those trains stop at the Port of Vancouver.

Currently, about 75 trains move through our community daily. Of those, an average of 1.5 unit trains enters the port. The rest are traveling north, south and east on BNSF and Union Pacific mainlines. They’re carrying a variety of cargoes, including those considered hazardous such as gasoline, diesel, crude oil and various chemicals. As common carriers, railroads are required under federal law to transport these products.

Right now, much discussion is focused on whether or not oil trains and Vancouver’s waterfront redevelopment can coexist. I believe they have to. The increased transport of U.S. crude is in response to changing markets. The Midwest is experiencing an economic boom, and the U.S. is expected to produce more oil than Saudi Arabia by 2015. Transporting domestic oil to West Coast refineries means more jobs and increased profits for U.S. companies and reduces our nation’s dependence on foreign oil — strong incentives to both the private and public sectors.

Those market factors are impacting our community. Either we understand them and create benefit, or we simply sit on the sidelines and watch the trains go by.

The port is investing $275 million in rail infrastructure because rail is one of the safest and most environmentally responsible ways to move products. Wheat, minerals, wind energy components, automobiles, chemicals, propane, jet fuel, diesel and more are shipped through the port. Crude oil would be a new commodity, but not a surprising one.

Responding to the growing domestic market, our long-term tenant Tesoro is proposing to transport up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil per day through the port. Our fundamental requirement is that the effort be undertaken with the utmost care. Currently, the project is going through a rigorous environmental review, led by Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The group will make a recommendation to Governor Inslee on whether or not the project should move forward, and he will make the final decision. We have great confidence in the process.

A need for partnership

Because the port is located near regional mainlines, it’s easy to confuse what tracks belong to the port and which are owned by the railroads. Yes, a rail berm that will bring trains into the port runs alongside the waterfront project proposed by local developer Barry Cain. However, more than half of this berm, approximately 1,500 feet, will run parallel to a BNSF mainline, with only 50 to 100 feet separating the two. Again, oil trains will travel next to Vancouver’s waterfront regardless. What will be decided is whether those trains stay on the mainline as they make their way to other West Coast locations — or whether a fraction of them will enter our port.

Interestingly, the port built the rail berm in 2008 to help the waterfront redevelop. Maintaining rail access to several area businesses was the final obstacle to the city’s redevelopment of the former Boise Cascade property. The solution, which was the result of months of brainstorming between the port, the city, Barry Cain, Boise Cascade, BNSF and Washington State Department of Transportation, was for the port to build a berm that provided the required access. The port’s $14 million investment, which includes the underpasses at Esther and Grant Streets, was completed almost eight years earlier than was necessary for its use as the port’s new rail entrance.

This type of collaborative approach is what we need now. World-class cities find ways to embrace industry as part of a vibrant and thriving community. If additional regulations are necessary, we should put them in place. If new technologies will increase safety and reduce impacts to our environment, we should make those investments. Great care must be taken with every step, but we must move forward. A strong economy is part of a livable community. We can have both.

Todd Coleman is CEO of the Port of Vancouver.