Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Good Mornin' America, How Are Ya?

Old Willie Nelson's familiar words occurred to me about 4AM this AM when a [relatively quiet] train tootled its way through the Ham. I wondered briefly if it had a name, like 'The City of New Orleans' or someplace else. Most likely it had no name, like most trains; just efficient, impersonal numbers. That would seem to fit better with the style -or lack of it- of BNSF Railroad, now owned & operated by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, in Omaha, NE, or wherever it wants to be.
Hey, how about 'The City of Omaha?

I actually like the kindly, smiling Mr Buffet, who seems to epitomize competency, caring and good business sense. Just the kind of investment steward that is desired, actually preferred, for retirement security and growth. And, at my age, I can't afford too many gambles, at least of the financial type.
But, you know, such things aren't that simple now. Maybe they never were, but certainly not now.

Railroads helped build this nation and secure business opportunities, jobs and critical supplies so necessary for growth.
In return, they were rewarded handsomely, by large land grants, relatively few restrictions and the resulting success that was bound to follow. And that was good, essentially, but maybe not as good as it might have been had the foresight for future needs been built into the equation; like providing reliable, efficient transportation for people along established routes - like, well, in Europe.

Over time, railroads have become more like necessary evils, not very responsive to anything other than their own short term wishes and profitability. That seems evidenced by the current push to create more rail traffic by hauling steam coal from huge deposits in Montana & Wyoming to a suitable export terminal somewhere on the US West Coast.
Where, do you imagine might this facility be located?
Are any of the several major seaports eligible? Strangely, it would seem not! From south to north, San Diego, Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco/Oakland, Portland, Longview, Seattle/Tacoma, Everett all were not selected for this purpose, for various reasons related to ownership of RR rights of way, excessive distance/cost of shipping, lack of space, or simply not wanted by the port in question.
Why do you imagine that might be?
Not to worry, that explanation isn't really necessary, because all those places/ports have been rejected by the erstwhile proponents, in favor of Cherry Point in northern Whatcom County -a place crying out for development?

Some may be crying out in favor of it, but most seem to be shedding real tears at the prospect of the enormous blot envisioned to be created by forcing an undesirable facility, with its attendant invasive side effects, into our community.
I certainly hope this blitzkrieg proposal does not succeed, despite the nice Mr Buffett and all the local political rhetoric that panders to the prospect of 'free' new taxes, plus several dozen new jobs to swell the coffers and clout of a few union bosses.
Does that seem like a fair trade to you?
Is the kindly Mr Buffett likely to care?

Somehow, it all just seems a little too opportunistic to me, what with using all that inherited set of entitlements bestowed by our well-meaning government 150 years or so ago.
And, the timing is also suspect; trying to take advantage of economic hard times; almost reminds of the evil villain tying Miss Lizzie to the tracks...
But, enough of this; why not actually name this/these proposed train/s? After all, they're all part of the same dysfunctional family. Any suggestions? Keep it clean!
How about the City/Cities of [fill in the blank], China?
Sorry, but Willie Nelson might give up singing this song with those lyrics.

The trip I just completed furnished some interesting information regarding coal companies, trains & terminals, so I'll share some of it:
The two shipping terminals in the Hampton Roads/Norfolk, VA area have been there for quite a while. Sufficient trackage and marshaling areas are already in place to allow loading of large ships -colliers- on the waterfronts of Norfolk and Newport News.
Coal from West Virginia, Kentucky and western Virginia is hauled by C&O and other railway carriers to these facilities in long, unit trains. Dockside loading facilities are enormous, but easily accommodated in a large seaport area like Hampton Roads.

Here's a picture of the Norfolk coal loading facility taken at a distance from a boat. One ship is being loaded in the picture, but more can be handled at one time depending upon stockpile available.

The Newport News facility is several miles away across Hampton Roads, up the James River.

One concern noted is the fact that several empty colliers seem always at anchor off Lynnhaven -just east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel- awaiting their turn to travel via the Thimble Shoals Channel into Hampton Roads. This photo taken from a VA Beach park shows such vessels lying at anchor offshore.

On that day, 10 ships lay at anchor, down from the more usual 20 or so, according to local people. Note that Thimble Shoals Channel is the primary access route to/from Hampton Roads for major vessels; probably about 1000 yards wide and 50 feet deep. It is also used by US Navy vessels, cruise ships and other seafaring vessels.

I wonder what is visualized at Cherry Point regarding the queuing up of vessels awaiting loading? Our local waters do not have the space for many multiple anchorages of very large vessels, although crude oil vessels do anchor near Anacortes and sometimes further north. Channels are also constricted and the danger of spills, ballast dumping, crowding and collisions seem relatively high. Competition from fishing and pleasure craft is another real concern, since the San Juan & Gulf Islands are prime locations sought out by boaters for there beauty and serenity -a not inconsequential reason for the popularity of our area!

Further west, I had the opportunity to talk with a person from eastern Montana who is very familiar with both the Powder River Basin mining area and railroad operations, in particular the BNSF Railroad.
Coal deposits in Montana are larger than those in Wyoming, and coal mining companies are typically indiscriminate about what they sell or to whom.
They are also typically very secretive about plans and reluctant to spend money for necessary or desirable track improvements. Often, they will front a local sponsor as project advocate to take advantage of local knowledge and shield themselves from direct scrutiny.
Once a new loading facility is built, they will ship whatever product{s} they can sell on an interchangeable basis, despite any stated purposes. It seems established rules allow this type of activity.
The picture painted of coal mining companies is not pretty; they are international opportunists, pure and simple, with no conscience of unintended consequences.
If their immediate goals cannot be readily achieved by a specific proposal, they will shift to another. They also wield powerful lobbying clout which they use often.

The BNSF also operates opportunistically. The potential Mr Buffett saw in acquiring his controlling interest is unused capacity, plus desirable track routes.

The BNSF Railroad route from eastern Montana essentially parallels US Highway #2, which was used to build/maintain it.
The maximum grade railroads can negotiate is about 2%, one third of what highways can design for.
Marias Pass [5575 feet elevation] in Glacier National Park is the highest elevation BNSF crosses along this route. Extra engines are needed routinely for this service.
One can follow this route through a series of towns and crossings, including East & West Glacier MT, Whitefish MT, Libby MT, Bonner's Ferry ID, Sand Point ID, Spokane WA, Wenatchee WA to Everett WA.
From there, BNSF can go north or south, but for the moment prefers north through Bellingham to the proposed terminal at Cherry Point.

You know, just like the Olympic Pipe Line, the BNSF Railroad traverses many communities, all of which will be impacted by higher levels of train traffic. That is a point that should not be lost of us; this is not just about us!
That is why severely limiting the EIS scope is not a good idea; impacts will be felt other places too, but with the big difference that a huge, hungry terminal may be in OUR back yard.
What about the unsuspecting people all along this route who will not be notified that their lives are about to change in ways they don't expect, and can do little to mitigate? You know, little things like waiting 10 to 15 minutes or more at a crossing that used to be no problem.
Annoying and maybe dangerous things will happen all across the Highway #2 corridor, but most won't even know about it until too late to matter. Sorry, but that ain't OK.
Good mornin' America, how are ya? indeed.

One final comment about those 'Robber Baron' folks who aren't happy with the Mayor of Bellingham and his recent 'come to Jesus' moment; he's finally realized -in the brilliant light of election season- the overwhelming wishes of his constituency!
Those disappointed by this turn of events will need to come up with better arguments than 'we need to wait for the EIS' before expressing opinions.
Get serious!
No competent party ever goes into a negotiation without having a clear idea of what the desired outcome could/should be.
The same is true here, and thank goodness the community has made its voice heard early in this process.
To wait for 'others' to perform the EIS without our clear concerns and desired outcomes is lunacy of the first order.
And, it is stupid and self-serving to suggest otherwise. That's simply imposing some personal will upon the community, which doesn't fit too well with a real democracy.
The Mayor gets credit for hearing the public's concerns; but that was only possible if he actually listened.