Rail project is key to our future

train on railway
If approved, the Sandpoint Junction Connector Project would take a big step toward fixing a serious problem plaguing regional rail. Photo: freepik.com

In the months ahead, the United States Coast Guard will make a decision regarding the future of the Sandpoint Junction Connector Project, which seeks to build a new railroad bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. They’ll consider public input, review the potential benefits and impacts, and deliver an exhaustive and thorough recommendation as to whether construction can begin in a timely fashion.

We should hope their answer is yes.

The outcome of this review has important implications not only for the states of Washington and Idaho but also for the entire Northwest, where rail transport is key to ensuring the reliable supply chain our economy depends upon.

If approved, the Sandpoint Junction Connector Project would take a big step toward fixing a serious problem plaguing regional rail. If rejected, it will represent a major missed opportunity – one that will limit our ability to keep pace with growing rail traffic and our ability to capitalize on the benefits of rail transport.

There is already a bridge over this section of Lake Pend Oreille; 60 trains use the bridge every day, hauling a diverse cross-section of raw materials, finished products like cars and trucks, agricultural goods, energy products like oil and coal, and – as Amtrak’s only corridor through the region – travelers. It’s a heavily traveled section of track that serves as an important conduit for commerce of all types here in the Pacific Northwest.

The problem, though, is that the current bridge simply can’t handle existing rail traffic. It’s a single-track bridge that can only be used by one train at a time, and as a result, trains must pull off the line, idle, and wait their turn to cross the bridge and continue to their destination. It’s a textbook bottleneck, and its impacts can be felt across the region in the form of delayed deliveries, long waits for motorists at railroad crossing, and overall inefficiency in the supply chain.

The construction of a second bridge alongside the existing bridge would allow traffic to flow more freely, reduce wait times at crossings, and generally help to secure a more efficient and functional rail system. Everyone has a stake in the outcome of this project, whether you’re a manufacturer waiting on a delivery or a commuter trying to get to work.

Opposition to the project has been tied to concern about environmental impacts – things like spilled oil, drifting coal dust, or other risks associated with the higher rail traffic they expect. Opponents carrying these messages are sure to be among the loudest voices as the Coast Guard process moves forward – but the loudest voices aren’t always right.

Fortunately, the initial review conducted by the Coast Guard shows that these concerns don’t match reality. First – and most importantly – reviewers don’t believe that the Sandpoint Junction Connector will increase rail traffic moving through the region. This is a crucial assumption, because without increased traffic, it’s impossible to claim increased risk of environmental harm if the project moves forward.

Quite the opposite, in fact. If the bridge is built, trains won’t have to waste time idling and waiting for their place in the traffic pattern – they’ll simply power straight through, emitting less carbon while also arriving in a timelier fashion. They also won’t have to deal with the risks of entering and exiting the traffic flow. If anything, a second bridge – and the resulting fluidity – would make the region’s rail corridors even safer. That’s saying something, since rail is known to be an extremely safe and efficient way to get products and people where they need to go.

In the end, these environmental concerns appear to be more of a red herring than a sound argument against progress. Roughly 70 percent of the freight that moves across the bridge is made up of agricultural products, after all. As the public review moves forward, it’s important that these viewpoints are not allowed to distort the debate and distract from the importance of this project.

The Coast Guard has been spot-on in their review to date. They deserve our support, and so does the Sandpoint Junction Connector Project.

Ozzie Knezovich is the Spokane County Sheriff.

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