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Report Shows Coal, Oil Trains Would Quadruple Rail Traffic, Alarming Lawmakers

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Lawmakers are expressing concerns over an updated report outlining the combined impacts of coal and oil trains that would roll through the Northwest if plans for export terminals move forward.

Elected officials in the Leadership Alliance Against Coal, a group that formed under the leadership of former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, met in Seattle Tuesday to hear from the author of the report.

Proposals for two export terminals are still on the table in Washington: one in Cherry Point, near Bellingham, and one in Longview. A third is planned for the Port of Morrow near Boardman, Oregon. 

Shipments of domestic oil products are already slowing rail traffic. They’ve more than doubled over the past four years. And if all plans for export terminals go forward, added volumes from coal and oil trains would be more than triple the current shipments for agriculture, according to the report commissioned by theWestern Organization of Resource Councils, a network of grassroots community groups.

“We’re talking about capacity problems on every single route," said the report's author, Terry Whiteside. "We’re talking about service disaster for a while.” 

Authorities should expect congestion on railroad tracks for the next five to 10 years, with increased prices for shippers of Washington crops such as apples and wheat, the report said.

“The economic benefits of these proposals are incredibly modest. The costs are off the charts,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who chairs the House finance committee in Olympia. Based on the report, Carlyle said, anticipated jobs and tax revenue from new export terminals would be quickly gobbled up by the need for new roads to get around congested railroad tracks.

“If, for example, we have to do grade separation in south Seattle or in Edmonds, or in Marysville, or along the Columbia River, that can negate all the taxes generated from every one of these plants, for years and years, and years,” Carlyle said. “Just two, three or four grade separations could wipe out every economic benefit.”

In response to the report, Union Pacific, which operates some of the rail lines, said existing business should not be affected when new customers come online. The company plans to continue holding meetings in communities in which it operates in hopes of maintaining a constructive exchange.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to