Monday, February 7, 2011

Bellingham’s Great Wall of China

The Great Wall was built to define territory and keep the uncivilized hordes out of the more civilized lands of China.  Certainly in this instance a wall brought benefit, but not all walls do.  Take, for instance, the mile and half long “wall” of coal cars that would pass through Bellingham 12 times a day if the Pacific Gateway proposal for Cherry Point gets approved and coal turns out to be the main material shipped. 

But SSA Marine and Goldman Sachs say that it is going to bring us prosperity and riches you say?  Maybe for Goldman Sachs and Burlington Northern, but for most of the rest of us it is going to bring even more economic hardship.  Why would I say that?  Let’s do the math.

Most projections we have seen put the number of coal trains traveling to and from Cherry Point at six which means 12 trips through Bellingham a day—18 miles of trains.  At 10 miles per hour it takes a train six minutes to travel a mile or nearly 40 minutes for the train to get completely through the roughly 5 miles of track along Bellingham’s waterfront.  Twelve times 40 is 480 minutes which means that for 20 minutes every hour there will be a train traversing our waterfront or 32% of the time.  Since that mile and half long train only covers 30% of the five mile course, we end up with what amounts to a solid wall 10% of the time 24 hours a day. 

So if you are a business on the bayside of the trains and you keep normal nine-to-five business hours you should probably expect the coal wall to have a 3.32% impact on your livelihood.  So if your revenues are about $1 million this could potential take a $33,200 nick out of your revenues.  More if your hours of operation are longer.  All things being equal, that could represent the equivalent of about one employee per every million dollars in revenue earned on the bayside of the tracks. 

The impacts of this will not be universal or homogenous.  For some businesses like restaurants it could mean loss of customers because of access issues or them not wanting to listen to 30 minutes of coal trains during an hour and half lunch or dinner.  For others in the hauling or delivery fields it might come in the form of lost efficiency because their trucks traverse the tracks regularly. 

Then there are the whole host of issues that arise in terms of safety and service access.  What will this do to response times in that area?  There are many people on the other side of the “wall” in those office buildings, marina, and the hotel whose lives may depend on emergency response time.

And what about the potential to impact the waterfront redevelopment plans?  The revenue projections are already probably too high and not adequate to cover climbing clean up costs.  How does a proposed activity that impacts these revenue projections even further make prospects any rosier?

If I was trying to run a business on the bayside of the tracks during these trying times, I’d be asking SSA Marine and their representatives some very, very serious questions.  And I suspect that at some point I would end up wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: Don’t Let Goldman Sachs’ Greed Put Me on the Wrong Side of the Tracks.


Bob Ferris 
Executive Director

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