Environmentalists Are Trying Squash A Major Railway Project To Speed Up Traffic All Over The Northwest

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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Environmentalists are trying to derail a proposal to turn a single rail track running over Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho to a double track, allowing trains to simultaneously cross from either direction.

BNSF (Burlington Northern and Sana Fe) Railway has considered expanding the track for years but formally proposed adding the second track in April 2017. The track is now in the permitting process, and the Idaho Department of Public Lands has scheduled the first of two public hearings on the proposal for Wednesday, May 23. The Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard must also approve permits for the track.

The proposed track would be about a mile long and run parallel to a track already in place. Currently, three tracks feed into the single bridge from one side of the lake, and two tracks feed into it from the other, according to the Inlander.

“Imagine if your on I-90 or Highway 95, and you just had multiple lanes and you went down to single lane and traffic could only go over that lane in either direction; you wouldn’t be saying, ‘When can we build that?’ You’d be saying, ‘How fast can we build that?'” BNSF Public Affair Regional Director Courtney Wallace explained to reporters on a press call Monday.

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad joined environmental group Idaho Conservation League (ICL) in arguing against the proposal. Sandpoint is located on Lake Pend Oreille, and train tracks run along the edge of the city.

The extra track will increase the risk of train derailments, and the construction could do lasting or permanent damage to the environment, the ICL said.

Proponents for the track dispute the claims, however. The added track will increase safety on the bridge and allow the flow of train traffic to continue largely unabated when trains cross the bridge traveling in opposite directions.

The extra track will also reduce interference of vehicle traffic in Sandpoint. Trains waiting to cross the bridge create long blockages for roads crossing the railroad tracks, sometimes impeding police, ambulances and other emergency personnel, Bonner County Commissioner Glen Bailey told reporters Monday.

The lake bridge has received support outside of Idaho, as well, to reduce bottlenecks along a route that stretches through multiple states and carries cargo of fuel, consumer goods and passengers.

“While they may seem old-fashioned to some, we expect trains will become even more vital in the future, and train traffic is expected to grow in the decades ahead,” Washington’s Tri-City Herald wrote. “We support the idea of the second bridge across the lake in Idaho. It means a lot here in Washington too.”

Rail traffic would significantly increase if a coal terminal proposed and rejected in Washington ends up being built. Millennium Bulk Terminals, which proposed to build the largest coal terminal in the U.S., has sued Washington over the state’s rejection of the export terminal. (RELATED: Six States Are Joining A Lawsuit Against Washington To Save The Largest Coal Terminal In The US)

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