Saturday, February 16, 2013

Processing the Small City Mayors

Not surprisingly, the Gateway Pacific coal terminal was the topic of some of the questions at this morning’s Small City Mayors forum in Ferndale. 

The League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County sponsored the forum.  Many thanks to the League for this contribution to civic discussion in our community.  

The forum raised more questions than it answered, I think, which is one of the purposes of discussions.
Here are a couple of questions that I wish I could have asked.

Question 1:  “The Process” 

Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis stated that “the process” relating to the coal terminal is “in play right now,” so “let’s let the process take place.”  Blaine’s Mayor, Harry Robinson, said “let’s get all the information” before putting the “horse before the cart.”  Korthuis stated that he would not support the project if “the process” showed that it would be “environmentally horrible” (or "disastrous" -- I'm not sure which adjective he used.  You get the idea, in any case.)
But here’s the thing. 

The small city mayors are already on record as unequivocally, unquestioningly supporting the coal terminal.  They have established that they have no interest in “the process” as you and I might envision it:  an objective approach to gathering the information needed to evaluate community, environmental, and economic impacts, thereby ensuring that coal terminal benefits are weighed knowledgeably against impacts. 

Here’s a link to a video showing Mayor Korthuis of Lynden, testifying in Seattle.  He stated:  

“I speak on behalf of all the mayors of the six incorporated cities of northern Whatcom County—that would be Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Nooksack, Sumas, and Lynden.”

Let me emphasize that all the mayors of these cities have endorsed the Gateway project.” 

“We are confident that Gateway can be built to protect the environment.”  

“Permitting agencies should not interfere with the lawful conduct of commerce.” 

These statements demonstrate not one shred, not one iota, of intent to pay any attention to the “process.”  The small city mayors have already made their decision.  Process is for everyone else, apparently. 

In fact, as David Stalheim pointed out during today’s forum, some of the small city mayors subverted “the process” by walking to the head of the line at the Ferndale scoping meeting.  Line-sitters paid by the project applicant held spots for VIPs, while citizens who had followed the “process” by showing up early and waiting in line for hours wound up with no opportunity to speak.
So, my first question would have been:  “What gives you the right to tell everybody else to follow the ‘process’ when you have already made it clear that you, yourselves, are above the process?” 

Question 2:  Paying for Infrastructure 

One of the more heartfelt and moving moments of the meeting came from Blaine’s mayor.  In response to a question about each mayor’s major concerns, Mayor Robinson said that his major concern was delays caused by trains.  “Trains slowing down affects our city very dramatically,” he observed. For example, school buses arrive at school late when they have to wait at rail crossings, and children who depend on school breakfasts have to go without breakfast when the buses are late.  

Trains also delay Blaine’s emergency vehicles.  Mayor Robinson vividly described his own wife’s experience.  She had required an ambulance, and the local ambulance was not able to provide the drugs that she needed.  An ambulance was called from Bellingham – and it had to wait 20 minutes for a train to pass.   

“If she had required those drugs [to live],” he concluded, “she would have died.” 

You could be excused for expecting that the mayors would show some human reaction to this story.   You might think, for example, that at least a few of the mayors would show concern for the fact that the Gateway Pacific project would add 18 ADDITIONAL coal trains per day, each 1.6 miles long.  You might assume that this concern would lead to a broader discussion, in light of the fact that their constituents, maybe even their own family members, might. . .die from the impacts. 

You would be wrong on all counts. 

In response to a question asking whether BNSF, the railroad company, should pay for the improvements needed to avoid impacts from the 18 additional 1.6-mile-long trains, someone – Mel Hansen from Ferndale, I believe, but I was in the back of the room and couldn’t see well – growled “No.  You don’t saddle a business with that much undue burden.” 

Nobody contradicted him.  So I waved my hand with a question that I didn’t get to ask at the time: 
If BNSF shouldn’t be saddled with so much undue burden, who will pay for those improvements?  Anyone?  Will you, the small city mayors, pay for the needed improvements?  Or is it OK with you simply to impose this burden on your constituents, who will have to live (or die) with the delays?
That’s the question that I wanted to ask, this morning.  But then I listened to that YouTube video of Lynden’s Mayor testifying in Seattle.  He said this:
“It would be inequitable for a major population center like Seattle or Tacoma to recognize transportation infrastructure capacity for their own needs while seeking to deny it to other communities.”

 Now I want to ask: 

Small city mayors, is it “equitable” to impose the harms that 18 more trains will create– the kids who don’t get breakfasts, the spouses and children and parents and siblings who don’t get emergency services in time – on communities between here and Wyoming, just for your “own needs”?

And – I might add --  don't tell me to wait for "the process." Not when you don't play by the same rules.




  1. In a comment on the Herald web site, one "dstalheim" (who could that be) provided this additional information about how other communities along the rail line view the increase in rail traffic:

    "The dichotomy between these Mayors and the rest of the cities and ports along the railroad line is striking.

    "Let there be no doubt, the Gateway project as currently proposed will have a very significant negative impact on our local economy...Even the most cursory review of the Gateway proposal shows that the additional trains required to supply the new terminal with coal will further obstruct traffic, and have a negative impact on economic development in our community leading to a net loss of jobs…. The notion of "he who benefits pays" is considered fundamentally fair in America, and we believe it is fully applicable to the Gateway project's effect on our community." (Port of Skagit)

    "The Mount Vernon City Council and Mayor are greatly concerned that the additional rail traffic, proposed by GPT, will result in safety and mobility impacts within the City's most heavily traveled transportation corridors. Traffic delays and congestion have a direct economic impact that will negatively impede business development and investment at a time when the City is removing such obstacles in order to promote economic development."

    "Marysville…currently has eleven public at grade
    crossings…and does not have any grade-separated crossings for major access…The congestion that may be caused by additional trains…show the potential for severe impacts…associated with GPT…Furthermore, the public cost to develop capital projects that would separate these at-grade crossings threatens to divert precious public transportation resources that are programmed for existing needs."

    Federal law puts the railroad on the hook for no more than 5% of any costs to remove grade separated crossings. (23 CFR, Part 646.210) Taxpayers pick up 95% of these costs. How many billions of dollars of railroad crossing improvements will be needed so that we can ship coal to China?

    You can read all the other agency comments, including the Ferndale School District's questions about delayed response for emergency medical response at eisgatewaypacific dot gov/resources/project-library."

    Not that I endorse venturing into the anonymous, vicious swamp that is the Herald website, but here's the source:

    1. Interesting CFR Jean. I only read the immediate section so do not know the broader context, but I noted that subsection d reads: "(d) Railroads may voluntarily contribute a greater share of project costs than is required. Also, other parties may voluntarily assume the railroad's share." I presume this means that if a project for which the railroad is actively seeking approval is required as mitigation to contribute to railroad grade improvements, the railroad might "offer" to share in this mitigation cost. Of course, a railroad corporation might determine that a project is not in its economic interest and therefore not be willing to contribute for the proportional share of the project's impacts to infrastructure such as grade separated crossings. Of course, without the installation of dozens or hundreds of grade-separated crossings, shipping coal from Wyoming to Washington is likely to have many significant unavoidable safety and traffic (aka environmental) impacts. It would stand to reason that all these impacts could be considered “environmentally horrible” (in the words of Mayor Korthuis) and thus the mayors might yet switch positions.

    2. We can hope so. The small cities aren't similarly situated with respect to coal terminal impacts. It's too bad that the small city mayors have gotten so used to moving in lockstep in political matters that they're willing to move in lockstep on this issue, before they or their constituents have had a chance to think through the consequences.

      The tag team of Lynden's Mayor Korthuis, who has testified on behalf of all of the small cities on various occasions, and Ferndale's Mayor Gary Jensen is espcially interesting. Lynden doesn't have much at stake from rail traffic if trains come up the coast. It also has little to gain from the coal terminal -- maybe a couple of the several hundred permanent employees (at buildout) will settle in Lynden. Although Mayor Korthuis travelled all the way to the Seattle scoping hearing to act as the spokesperson for Lynden and the other small cities, indicating that he views the terminal as very important, it's hard to see that the terminal will directly affect Lynden in any major way.

      Ferndale clearly believes that it has a good deal to gain, and it also may have the most to lose. Ferndale's scoping comments, posted at, make this clear:

      “The City expects the EIS to analyze the impacts of rail traffic created by the Gateway Pacific Terminal on the City’s surface streets. There are currently five at-grade rail crossings within the City. . .all of which should be analyzed based on delays created by increased rail traffic. . . .mitigation measures should be identified. . .”

      In light of the small cities' view that BNSF should not be required to pay for mitigation, it's not clear who will pay for any mitigation measures that are "identified." If Ferndale has struck a mitigation deal with SSA, that same deal surely should be made available to the hundreds of communities down the line that will be affected.

      If not, I hope that Ferndale taxpayers are gearing up to pay the $200 million or so that such mitigation measures will cost, extrapolating from the projected $37.8 million for a single grade separation in Ferndale's own Transportation Improvement Program (see the last item on the last page, here:

      If every man, woman, and child in Ferndale (population 11,415) kicks in $17,500, that's all it would take.

    3. Actually, re Lynden not seeing the trains, Safeguard the South Fork has shown that maps of future infrastructure plans for the county have always indicated a planned spur at Lynden to connect the coastal route and inland route. The soil in the SF Valley may be too boggy for filled coal trains, but probably not for the empties, and that would relive the coastal route of a lot of traffic. Who'll pay for the infrastructure (DS's big question?). BNSF's suggestion (and I paraphrase, as usual): If WA wants to demonstrate to industry they're serious about attracting new business, we'll suck it up and git 'er done.

    4. Thanks, Terry. The applicants' refusal to specify a rail route creates a huge barrier to assessing the costs and benefits of the project, as well as a barrier to figuring out where the upside and the downside will fall. That's another reason that the small city mayors' support seems premature.

      On the other hand, in today's Cascadia Weekly, "The Gristle" points out that Ferndale's school district "would receive $1.4 million annually" (presumably at full buildout of the terminal). So if the mitigation for grade separations cost $200,000,000, Ferndale would get that investment back in only around 70 years. Assuming that the terminal operates at full capacity for 70 years, of course. That wasn't the experience of the two other west coast coal terminals, which closed down when the market tanked.

      That's still better than Marysville, with its 11 at-grade crossings and $0 in increased tax revenue.

  2. Unfortunately, the Gristle got his school facts wrong. He needs to re-read the article I wrote on financing. There will be ZERO increase in revenue to the school district because it is a limited levy. The tax burden is lessened by just $7 for an average home in the Ferndale School District.

    1. So, if the average home has 2 people, each of whom "owes" $17,000 for grade separation improvements, the taxes from the project would pay off that amount in only 2,000 years. We'll still be exporting coal in the year 4013, right?

      I know, I know, I didn't figure in interest on the $200 million and all that. But maybe school taxes will go up. Or maybe we won't need schools any more, because everyone will learn telekinetically.

      The point is -- it just doesn't pencil, IF it were the case that Ferndale intended to pay its own way. If that were the case, Ferndale might conclude that the costs exceeded the benefits.

      Which leads us back to that initial question: who's going to pay?