A map of rail connected to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point. (Image courtesy of PSRC.)

Earlier today, the Puget Sound Regional Council released a report on the expected economic and transportation impacts of the proposed Gateway Pacific [railroad] Terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. The GPT has been hotly debated for years, pitting anti-coal-export environmentalists against proponents who tout its economic benefits.

If built, it would dwarf similar facilities along the West Coast, moving 54 million tons of "dry bulk commodities" (that is, coal) annually, most of it headed for Asia. To move all that coal, an extra 18 trains (each of them 1.6 miles long) would pass through Seattle daily.

According to this new report, the GPT's touted economic benefits are something of a mixed bag. The report notes that with rail freight volume already projected to jump by 130 percent by 2035, the GPT will likely congest rail traffic around Puget Sound (unless rail companies like BNSF build more lines): “Even without the proposed terminal, projected increases in rail freight volume are already expected to affect availability of rail capacity in the region.” This includes the Sounder and Amtrak trains, which share sections of rail with the potential GPT shipping companies. Cars and pedestrians crossing railroad tracks can also expect to wait longer (potentially as long as an hour and a half) if the GPT project proceeds.

The report also found that while Seattle and other King County cities would shoulder the brunt of environmental damage from the GPT's added train traffic, Whatcom County would receive the lion’s share of jobs, spending, and tax revenues. (The actual terminal would be located in Whatcom's Cherry Point, north of Bellingham and next door to the Lummi Indian Reservation, while trains would simply pass through the Seattle area.)

Still, the report notes, central Puget Sound “could see a positive direct fiscal benefit” from the terminal. Whether that actually happens depends largely on how much rail companies are willing to invest in added rail infrastructure in the region.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36th), an opponent of the GPT, told PubliCola that the report "profoundly refutes the millions and millions of dollars of coal export marketing" that, in his view, has misled the public about the economic gains the GPT would bring our region. "The benefits [of the GPT] are highly concentrated in a few small communities within rural Whatcom County, while the costs are borne ... throughout Puget Sound." Carlyle also noted the irony of this report coming out on the same day that a BNSF train went off the rails in a North Seattle railyard.

We have calls out to GPT proponents for comment.

UPDATE: The pro-GPT Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports has posted a response to the PSRC report on their website. Unsuprisingly, they're skeptical: "The greatly exaggerated 'costs' projected in the study just don’t add up. From wait times at crossings, to impacts on other industries, to the economic impacts of the project, the PSRC is wrong." 

UPDATE: The Port of Seattle has posted a statement in response to the PSRC report.


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