Railroads Need Upgrades to
by Bill Stewart
Funding - Officials bring many requests for help
to a Washington state forum on rail capacity and needs
VANCOUVER -- More than 50 officials crowded into the Port of Vancouver commission room Thursday to tell the state it must help improve railroads if Washington is to maintain its leadership in cargo imports and exports.
In the first of five such forums planned throughout the state by the Washington State Transportation Commission, officials from as far as Grays Harbor and Lewis counties said there are capacity and velocity problems with BNSF Railway, which owns the mainline tracks in western Washington.
John Fratt, a consultant to port districts, said the region vitally needs the railroad. He told the state that obtaining permits for everything from longer sidings to road overpasses takes too long.
Steve Schulte -- who oversees the 33-mile, county-owned railroad in Clark County -- said the growth of the large Class 1 railroads, such as BNSF and Union Pacific, is causing a different headache for short-line railroads such as the county's.
"Businesses needing rail service have a limited opportunity to locate on a major rail line today because the railroads don't want to impede trains on the mainline with switches and sidings," Schulte said. "That forces businesses to go to short lines like ours. But there's not enough money for the small lines to upgrade the old rails to carry the heavy new cars."
Schulte suggested the state change a law to allow money from the real estate excise tax -- a tax levied on all property sales -- be used on rail in addition to the current spending on roads.
"In addition, road money is kept in separate accounts, but governments owning railroad lines must fund them out of their general fund," Schulte said. "That means we have to compete for dollars with such programs as jails."
George Cress, director of real estate and planning at the Port of Longview, said few people understand the huge costs of rail projects. He said 18 miles of new track along the Columbia River near Martin's Bluff in Cowlitz County will cost $500 million. He said the state rail fund has $50 million for that job.
Jim Jacks, the Southwest Washington representative for Gov. Chris Gregoire, asked where the forum participants suggest she find the dollars. He also noted that "you can't just gift money to private companies."
Jacks said Gregoire is aware that the state's economy is heavily committed to international trade and would not want anything to stand in the way of expanding that business.
Paul Edgar -- a Portland businessman who is fighting for a third Columbia River bridge that would carry rail, trucks, cars and light-rail trains -- complained to the forum that the current study of a replacement bridge for Interstate 5 has been "virtually hijacked." He said the movement of freight by truck or train is no longer the focus of the bridge team.
"We must have a longer, broader outlook," said John McKibbin, president of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. "This is a multistate problem, a national problem."
Ed Barnes of Vancouver, a member of the forum host Washington State Transportation Commission, said results of the five forums will be posted on the Department of Transportation Web site.
"I heard that you feel we need private-public partnerships," Barnes said. "All these suggestions will be used to prepare a report to the next Legislature."
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