City working with BNSF to relocate tracks across site
BBJ photo/VINCENT AIOSA
|Tom Rosenberg, city assistant public works director, said the city has been in discussions with BNSF and Washington State Department of Transportation’s rail office for about a year. BNSF is interested in relocating its tracks because as they currently lie, trains must cut an acute turn from Roeder Avenue into the site, reducing the train’s speed capability. The train relocation would likely cost $10 million, a $5 million increase from what they originally expected in September, when the city released economic estimates for redeveloping the New Whatcom site.|
When downtown and Fairhaven condo buyers consider the benefits of urban living, the list of pros usually includes proximity to restaurants and retail, walkability and a vibrant city milieu.
They may not know it moving in, but the con list usually soon includes the wailing 3 a.m. train whistle. As both districts and the former G-P waterfront redevelopment site develop into the dense urban cores the city envisions, the frequent train whistle screeching will become even more of an issue.
And noise is not the only problem. Two efforts to modify the railroad are on parallel tracks. One is an effort spearheaded by a group of neighbors and business owners urging the city to implement a railroad quiet zone.
The other is the effort by the city and Port of Bellingham to reroute a portion of the tracks within the waterfront redevelopment site.
Each will have an impact on the way the waterfront is developed, as well as on other development projects that depend on the quality of life experienced by the increasing number of urban dwellers moving into Fairhaven, downtown and the waterfront.
|Train route through G-P site|
Moving the tracks
Currently the BNSF Railway Co. tracks run through the former G-P pulp mill site, along what is slated to become the Commercial Street corridor.
The city and port want to relocate the track around the perimeter of the site along the bluff (see map), in order to make the site easier to develop and to make it safer. The city is performing a study with a $500,000 grant from the Federal Rail Administration to look at the feasibility of relocating 4,000 feet of track that run from the Roeder Avenue and Bay Street intersection to the Wharf and Pine streets intersection.
Tom Rosenberg, city assistant public works director, is in charge of the relocation effort. He said the city has been in discussion with BNSF and Washington State Department of Transportation’s rail office for about a year.
“They’re aware of our needs and we’re aware of their needs,” he said.
BNSF is interested in relocating its tracks because as they currently lie, trains must cut an acute turn from Roeder Avenue into the site, reducing the train’s speed capability, he said.
The train relocation would likely cost $10 million, he said, a $5 million increase from what they originally expected in September, when the city released economic estimates for redeveloping the New Whatcom site. The port would need to either purchase the land underneath the current tracks or trade with BNSF for the land where the train would relocate, owned in part by the port and in part by BNSF. The second option could offset the $10 million price tag, Rosenberg said.
One of the key issues is timing. The train relocation would affect three of the waterfront site’s main street connections — Commercial, Cornwall and Laurel streets — all of which are expected to be bridges into the site.
“The difficulty is to come up with a plan for sequencing the access to the site,” Rosenberg said.
The objective is to build bridges into the site before the railroad is relocated, as building a bridge above an active railway is imprudent, he said. While he hopes a deal with BNSF can be reached before the New Whatcom master plan is complete, Rosenberg said the site’s environmental impact statement and master plan will use a preferred alternative assuming the train will relocate if a deal has not been reached before then.
“It’s pretty much a conclusion that the railroad would be relocated,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF, did not wish to comment on the issue, except to say the company is participating in discussions with the city and state, and that it has no further plans at this time.
If a deal is not finalized with the railroad when building on the New Whatcom site begins, Rosenberg said, initial stages of development could start in an area unaffected by the relocation.
Another potential snag occurred when city engineers recently found mixed shells in a layer of sand while looking at sub-soil along the proposed new railroad track near Commercial Street. The shells might represent a prehistoric midden — a collection of shells where shucking or cooking may have occurred, Rosenberg said. By federal law, this finding requires the city to consult with tribes and the rail office to decide if any action must be taken, and with the help of archaeologists, the city is examining whether any other remains are present.
Rosenberg said the presence of more shell middens likely would not affect development or train relocation. Finding bones, however, might create a barrier, but Rosenberg said he thinks that scenario is unlikely.
The train relocation feasibility study will likely be completed in July, Rosenberg said. The New Whatcom master plan will be developed based on a preferred alternative of train relocation, and the city hopes the deal will be finalized with BNSF by the fall. The relocation project would take about five years from approval of the feasibility study to completion, Rosenberg said.
Another effort regarding the train is to create a federally recognized railroad quiet zone in order to accommodate the urban residents and development of downtown and Fairhaven neighborhoods.
Currently, the Federal Rail Administration has specific rules mandating train whistles before crossings for safety reasons. Incidentally, new trains are also being equipped with louder whistles.
Under a new federal law, local governments can create railroad quiet zones where train whistles are not sounded if specific safety measures are met, said Dick McKinley, city public works director.
These include heightening safety at street-railroad crossings with special gates, or eliminating at-grade railroad and street crossings by building tunnels underneath or bridges above the tracks. The other option is to simply close off a crossing permanently. The idea is to ensure cars are unable to drive around the gates, even when they are lowered, by eliminating crossings or adding an extra gate or barrier in the other lane, McKinley said.
The city has contracted a consultant to examine how a quiet zone could be implemented along the railroad tracks running from F Street in downtown to Harris Avenue in Fairhaven, which includes 12 crossings.
The consultant will identify what it would take to make each crossing meet quiet zone standards and get a ballpark cost.
McKinley said he has been coordinating with Rosenberg on the effort, and the consultant will study the possibility of train relocation when looking at the crossings, he said.
Like the train relocation study, McKinley expects the quiet zone study to be completed in the fall. At this point, the cost for improvements leading to a quiet zone designation is unknown, he said. Rory Routhe, a city engineer, said the last gate crossing recently upgraded at the Pine and Wharf streets intersection cost $150,000, but each of the 12 crossings being studied will have unique needs.
Gene Shannon, co-owner of The Fairhaven Village Inn, spearheaded the effort to get a train quiet zone in Bellingham by passing a resolution and sending a letter to the city with the South Hill Neighborhood Association. Shannon lived in Fargo, N.D., for 21 years before moving to Bellingham in 2002, and was involved in an eight-year campaign to create the largest train quiet zone area in the United States between Fargo and Moorhead, Minn.
For Shannon, it’s a quality of life issue that affects downtown and waterfront development, and loud horns are not conducive to quality of life, especially at 3 a.m., he said.
Fargo residents struggled for years to revitalize their downtown, but it wasn’t until after the quiet zone was implemented that developers showed interest and condos began going up, he said.
“You can’t have these new louder-level horns with residential living,” he said. “Downtowns really need to have lots of people living there to make them economically viable.”