Adding more jobs and helping the state compete globally for export trade are among the benefits to expanding Washington's rail system to accommodate a proposed increase in coal traffic, officials say.
"The competition is intense," Richard Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, told about 20 Tri-City leaders Thursday. "We have an opportunity, I think, now to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation expansion of export activity."
Coal, along with agriculture, already represents a major portion of what is exported from Washington ports, Davis said.
A rail expansion by BNSF Railway Co. would benefit agriculture and other industries in the state that depend on rail to transport their goods, Davis said. It would help create a faster, more reliable system, he said.
BNSF already has been investing an average of about $100 million a year in rail infrastructure in Washington state, he said.
There are no details about what exactly an expansion of the rail system would look like, Davis said.
The topic has been brought up because of the ongoing debate about whether Washington state ports should be used to export coal to Asia. The coal would be moved through the state on trains, with routes that would potentially bring the coal through the Tri-City area.
In July, state and federal officials announced a two-year study on the local and statewide impacts of exporting coal through a terminal in Bellingham, as well as the effects beyond the state.
Opponents, including environmental groups and Indian tribes, say the coal shipments will bring increased noise and pollution and disturb tribal fishing areas and cultural sites.
Jim Toomey, Port of Pasco executive director, said he is concerned about finding a way to pay for safety improvements needed with increased freight passing through the area.
While there has been a tremendous amount of effort to add grade separations, he said, there are still areas in communities, such as downtown Kennewick and Connell, where train traffic stops vehicle traffic.
Grade separations are needed whether freight trains are moving coal or windmill blades, he said.
And whether the coal is moved using a Washington state port or one in Canada, Toomey said it's likely coal will still move through the state.
Private companies have proposed coal terminal projects in the Northwest -- including in Boardman and Bellingham -- so coal can be shipped by rail and barge to the coast, where it would be loaded onto ships bound for Asia.
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