The need for rail infrastructure investment

Salmon Bay Bridge
Rail infrastructure is a vital part of Puget Sound’s trade system. Photo: Steven Pavlov.

If the Puget Sound region wants to continue its success as a leader in trade, then it must continue to make early investments in rail infrastructure projects. That is one key takeaway from the Seattle Community Rail Briefing co-hosted by Keep Washington Competitive (KWC) and the Washington Council on International Trade (WCIT) this week.

Two representatives from the rail and shipping industries spoke about increasing the efficiency of infrastructure and the need to ensure that local, state and federal governments are able to work with maritime and rail representatives to identify the best opportunities to strengthen the state’s trade gateways.

Mike Moore, Vice President of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA), told attendees that the 13,000 bridges in Washington state require significant maintenance, repair and scheduling to not disrupt trade.

In addition to that infrastructure work, Moore said “We’ve got to do the same thing throughout the rest of the system, whether it’s on terminals or to shift vessel calls from one terminal to another. What we don’t want to see is the shifting of calls out of the Northwest Seaport Alliance somewhere else.”

In the mid-2000s, the Canadian government looked to offset infrastructure costs via the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative. Launch in 2006, the program used $514.6 million to “identify potential areas for investment and to fund infrastructure projects to support Asia-Pacific trade,” according to the initiative’s audit.

Moore said the success of the Canadian initiative set the standard for Washington state’s efforts. Unlike Canada, Washington does not have local, state or federal governments on the same page with port authorities on how to invest in trade corridors, and that one “big glare” in the system relates to railroads and permitting issues.

“One of the reasons we need to focus on supporting railroads as they go through their permitting processes and their projects is to keep that system improving and building,” said Moore.

Another issue with Washington’s infrastructure is the lack of regulatory certainty, such as with the Port of Seattle’s $200-300 million Terminal 5 upgrade.

“If there is a lack of certainty from the political world and the regulatory world…and if that uncertainty cloud gets too big, then the dollars that you would need to invest and partner in an infrastructure investment like that will go away,” he continued.

Additionally, Washington should be investing in infrastructure locally to position itself to handle increased container volume over time, added Moore, rather than settling for containers being sent to Tacoma.

“Those in the maritime community are pushing back and saying we’ve got to have a footprint here with rail building capacity…to serve here and to not just shove it to Vancouver and Tacoma.”

Courtney Wallace, Director of Public Affairs for BNSF Railway, spoke to the investments the company has made to ensure that rail infrastructure is current and remains open and efficient for moving goods.

In 2014 and 2015, the company allocated $5.8 billion and $5.5 billion for capital investments, respectively, in double- and triple-track rail projects across the norther tier of the U.S. and in states including Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

“While those may be several states away, that great northern corridor is a critical link for the Pacific northwest,” said Wallace. “We have choke points, and we are making those investments in those states…to make sure that those trains are moving efficiently and are not being held up.”

This year, the company is investing $2.4 billion in network maintenance which include 13,000 miles of track resurfacing, 500 miles of rail replacement and nearly 3 million track ties which need to be replaced.

Wallace said there are two major projects for rail infrastructure in development for the region which would ensure goods can continue moving efficiently.

The first is a proposal to build a second bridge over Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho. Currently, there is a single-track bridge allowing only one train at a time.

“If someone is going across that bridge you are going to have trains on either side holding, and that has a ripple effect…it’s going to go into eastern Washington, go into Montana…that means goods are not getting to where they need to be.”

BNSF is also in the early stages of proposing a replacement for the Ballard bridge by the locks. The bridge was built in the early 1900’s and became stuck in the “up” position for six months in 1948. At the time, the railway was able to use an alternate route now used as a bike path.

The same problem is beginning to happen again, however the railway will not have the same temporary solution.

“By making these investments now and replacing this bridge, it will be helpful for us because we are not going to be stuck in an ‘up’ position where we aren’t going to be able to run trains or stuck in the ‘down’ position which affects mariners, both recreational and commercial,” said Wallace.

BNSF is currently asking for feedback from the maritime community on what the replacement should be. Wallace said the goal is to start early and to do the permit application right the first time – and as efficiently as possible.

The project is expected to cost an upwards of $200 million of BNSF investment without using taxpayer money. She added that the permit application will be submitted next year, and the permitting process should take two years. The project itself is expected to take three years to finish building.

“Washington state’s rail system is one of the most robust systems in the country, but other states and our neighbors up in Vancouver are taking steps to bolster their trade infrastructure in order to compete with us,” said Wallace. “This year, we will have invested more than $160 million here in Washington to ensure we continue to operate in a safe and reliable network.”

 

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Mike Richards grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA with a degree in Multiplatform Journalism and a minor in Public Relations. He wrote and published articles at Pittsburgh’s NPR station covering a variety of topics.

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