The city of Bellingham reached an initial agreement last month with Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway to begin the process of relocating a section of rail on the waterfront.
The agreement validates the city’s feasibility study — a two-year-long project that concluded in 2007 — and sets the stage for BNSF to begin preliminary engineering.
Currently, the railroad tracks cut across the central waterfront site where the city and port of Bellingham are hoping to create an urban mixed-used district. Relocating the tracks closer to the bluff is a key part of moving forward on the waterfront, said Tom Rosenberg ,assistant Public Works director, who heads the relocation project.
Moving the tracks would benefit all parties, Rosenberg said. The port and city will gain the land currently occupied by the railroad tracks and the railway will have a smooth, gradual path along the bluff that will allow trains to travel faster.
“We’re only talking 3 to 5 miles per hour, but it’s a big deal to them,” Rosenberg said.
Anytime a train can increase its speed, it increases its overall efficiency, he added. And for a mile-long train, even small improvements are important.
The cost estimate outlined in the city’s 2007 study is around $12 million to relocate approximately 4,000 feet of track. Funding for the project could come from the city and BNSF, Rosenberg said, but the final amounts have yet to be determined.
The city has a potential $5 million state grant set aside, but that money has yet to be awarded.
“It has been set aside for us, but we have to show good faith that we’re advancing the project,” Rosenberg said. “The responsible officials at the state level want to make sure that this is going to happen.”
What is not included in the relocation cost estimate is the cost of rebuilding the Cornwall Avenue overpass, which could cost upwards of $16 million, Rosenberg said. The city has a potential $6 million in federal money lined up for that project.
Currently, the bridge spans an old railroad grade, the Milwaukee Road. Since the new tracks will miss the old grade by about 100 feet, the new bridge will start near the same point where the current bridge ends.
Constructing a bridge over an active railway is not ideal, though, so the city needs to fast-track the project to finish it before the railroad relocation starts, Rosenberg said. The city is already working on bridge plans, but needs to finalize them soon, especially since the relocation project could break ground as early as mid-2010.
There is no time to be wasted, he added: “We’ve got a bridge to build and a rail to relocate.”