City council hears how Pasco could see 32 coal trains pass a day

Pasco could see as many as 32 coal trains traveling through the city each day as demand for American coal exports rises during the next decade.

That could mean a lot of stalled traffic as trains perhaps a mile and a half long roll through up to twice an hour during some parts of the day, the city council heard Monday.

“Are there alternatives to them coming through here?” Councilman Tom Larsen asked.

In short, no.

Rick White, the city’s community and economic development director, said growing energy demands in Asia could lead to 170 million tons of coal exported per year through Northwest hubs by 2022.

Coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming has to travel through Sandpoint, Idaho, because it’s too difficult for long, heavy trains to cross the Rocky Mountains anywhere else, White said.

From Sandpoint, the trains would go to Spokane and then cross the Cascade Mountains via Stevens Pass, in which case trains would be routed through Wenatchee.

But if proposed coal terminals are built in southwest Washington and in Oregon — including in nearby Boardman — then the trains will come through Pasco and then through the Columbia River Gorge, White said.

Trains using Stampede Pass to cross the Cascades also would come through Pasco, he said.

The proposed export terminals have been controversial because of concerns about the possible environmental and health effects of coal transport. A public meeting about the Boardman terminal in December drew about 260 people split between supporters and opponents.

Opponents raised questions about people breathing coal dust, about possible contamination of drinking and surface water, and about what would happen if a coal train caught fire in the Gorge’s notorious heavy winds.

Supporters argued that proper environmental precautions would be taken and that the terminal would bring jobs.

A staff report provided to the Pasco council projected that a train a mile and a half long traveling at a speed of 10 mph would take nine minutes to cross an intersection. At 32 trains per day, that’s 300 minutes, or five hours, of stalled traffic per day. Not only would traffic be stalled, but responses also could be delayed in the case of a fire or medical emergency.

The most congestion likely would be seen at the A Street and Oregon Avenue rail crossings, White said.

The city likely will have to spend money to analyze the effects on traffic and make improvements to streets that will see more traffic as people take detours to try and avoid the trains, he said.

Councilman Al Yenney suggested that North First Avenue should be upgraded to a truck route, and that the city should continue efforts to find money to build the proposed $31 million Lewis Street overpass. Replacement of the aging underpass where Lewis Street runs under a rail line has been a city priority for several years, but money has been hard to come by.

“I think we really, really need to get a handle on this now,” Yenney said.