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Monday, November 5, 2012

Coal Trains Could Delay Downtown, SoDo Traffic By One to Three Hours a Day, Study Finds

Posted by on Mon, Nov 5, 2012 at 2:53 PM

Building the nation's largest coal export terminal outside of Bellingham, Washington, could delay traffic in Seattle at eight key points in Belltown and SoDo by one to three hours, significantly impacting commuter traffic and emergency vehicles' response times, according to a traffic study released today and commissioned by the City of Seattle. (If you're not familiar with the coal train controversy, go read this.)

The study found that wait times for train crossings in SoDo and Belltown would increase by 15 to 49 percent in 2015; by 2026, when the coal terminal would be fully operational, traffic delays could increase by 31 to 108 percent.

Total Daily Train Gate Down Time
  • City of Seattle
  • Total Daily Train Gate Down Time

“It would create a wall along our waterfront,” said Mayor Mike McGinn in a press conference. “The data suggests there will be more frustrations, more bikers, drivers and pedestrians 'shooting the gap' to get across—which means the potential for more accidents."

The study, conducted by Parametrix consulting firm, used current traffic volumes at the Broad, Clay, Vine, and Wall Street train crossings in Belltown, as well as Holgate, Horton, Lander, and Spokane Street crossings in SoDo, to estimate the traffic impacts of moving 10-18 coal trains per day through Seattle. Each train would be approximately 1.6 miles long and traveling 20 mph, the study estimates, meaning that each train would delay traffic by roughly five minutes.

For example, the 14,080 drivers who commute daily along Lander Street already face a total of 3.5 hours of "daily gate down time" when trains cross the intersection. But the study found that traffic delays caused by 10 additional coal trains could increase at the intersection by one-third in 2015, to five hours a day. By 2026, drivers who take Lander Street could face over six hours and forty minutes of delays.

Compounding traffic problems, the coal trains would run on a 24-hour schedule—meaning these delays would occur routinely throughout the day, instead of being concentrated during off-peak traffic hours. And when you add mile-long trains to Seattle rush hour, "vehicle lines may not fully dissipate before the next train crossing, meaning some drivers would have to wait for multiple trains to pass before being able to gross to the other side of the tracks," explains McGinn.

The study found that some vehicle queued up for train crossings downtown and in SoDo could get 900-1,000 feet long as cars wouldn't have time to clear out entirely during train crossings between 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. This is especially dangerous for three Fire Stations—one under construction on 4th Avenue S, another on Alaskan Way, and a third on Fourth Avenue—whose emergency response times could be impacted by the delays.

"When we run trains through SoDO and [in Belltown], it impacts all modes—trains, cars, pedestrian, transit," McGinn said. "The public and policymakers need to take a close look at these findings as we examine the proposal to export more coal."

"The impacts on traffic, the impacts on employment, commuter traffic, they’re all negative for Seattle," added Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien. "There is no benefit. This is about being a leader to building a sustainable system… if a project like this goes forward, our progress [to become carbon neutral by 2050] goes down the drain."

"I’m going to be reaching out to other mayors, other cities that have train tracks running through their cities and suggest that they take a close look at that, too," McGinn said.

McGinn and the Seattle City Council are part of a highly critical group of Washington and Oregon public officials who object to accommodating the coal trains but lack the authority to prevent them from rumbling through their cities, spewing coal dust and clogging up traffic. McGinn and the Seattle City Council intend to present their traffic study's findings on November 13, when the state's Ecology Department holds a public hearing on the proposed Cherry Point terminal. Their political strategy appears to be to highlight the transportation, economic, and health impacts of coal trains, hopefully creating a public groundswell of opposition and prompting mitigation costs high enough to dissuade coal companies from developing at Cherry Point.


Comments (16) RSS

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Joe Szilagyi 1
What exactly would stop us from barring these trains except between 12am and 4am?
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on November 5, 2012 at 3:01 PM · Report this
Fnarf 2
Dear Mr. McGinn: the word is "cyclists". Not "bikers". A "biker" is a dentist in a midlife crisis astride a $35,000 Harley. People riding bicycles are cyclists. NOT BIKERS.

@1, the trains will run 24/7. If you restricted them to 12-4 AM the way would be permanently blocked that entire time, and there still wouldn't be enough hours to let them through.

The obvious solution, in light of the fact that even the current 3.5 hours of obstruction a day is unsustainable in a working city, is to bury the tracks. But we can't do that because we're burying the viaduct instead, and building more stadiums. Nice priorities you've got there, Seattle.
Posted by Fnarf on November 5, 2012 at 3:16 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 3
For once, Fnarf is correct.

Bury the coal trains, not SR-99.
Posted by Will in Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 3:19 PM · Report this
rejemy 4
Where do the longshoremen and Port of Seattle types stand on this? They're usually ready to pitch a fit at anything that delays their trucks down there.
Posted by rejemy on November 5, 2012 at 3:21 PM · Report this
The port's silence on the coal trains is because they are financially linked to the proposers of the facility. Which makes their histrionics about the arena even more ridiculous.
Posted by westside on November 5, 2012 at 3:27 PM · Report this
@ #1 Railroads are regulated under federal law, the city doesn't have the authority to restrict their movement. Witness the recent court case in Bellingham that threw out a citizen's initiative proposing to ban coal trains on these grounds. It's just not something that the city gets a say in.
Posted by soundslikepuget on November 5, 2012 at 3:35 PM · Report this
You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me 7
So this puts the war-on-cars people squarely in the pro-coal-train column. Right?
Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me on November 5, 2012 at 4:02 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 8
@6 not exactly correct. Regulations concerning uncovered coal loads causing health hazards are within the purview of counties and such.

Requirements that tunnels be used for hazardous materials such as coal dust also are within zoning scopes.
Posted by Will in Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 4:14 PM · Report this
disintegrator 9
So this is what it takes for you to worry about car commuters, is it?
Posted by disintegrator on November 5, 2012 at 5:55 PM · Report this
Why are the trains coming all the way around the south to go up to Bellingham instead of taking the Empire Builder route through the northern part of the state?
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on November 5, 2012 at 8:44 PM · Report this
seandr 12
@6: Surely trains must be subject to some sort of environmental impact review.

If, for example, coal trains release a bunch of coal dust in the air, seems there could be legal recourse via the EPA.

Also, how did King County come into possession of the Burlington Northern Eastside Rail Corridor? Is that line still governed entirely by the feds?
Posted by seandr on November 5, 2012 at 10:23 PM · Report this
I'm not sure if this concern has been addressed elsewhere, but the single-track tunnel under the city already causes train backups. More idling trains waiting for their turn means more diesel exhaust pollution. Just what we need, added to all that pollution emitted by the idling vehicles waiting for the trains.
Posted by pirate68 on November 6, 2012 at 12:21 AM · Report this
I guess Seattle shouldn't have ditched the Lander project and should have built the entire SR519 project, instead of a hotel.
Posted by hmmmmm on November 6, 2012 at 8:25 AM · Report this
@11, check out Sightline's earlier piece on rail congestion. Seattle actually is on the Empire Builder rail line, but I think you're talking about the Stevens Pass route, which is already over capacity. More here:…
Posted by CuriousR on November 6, 2012 at 2:20 PM · Report this
@11, Link got cut off. Google "Sightline Daily" and "Coal Trains and Rail Congestion" to see the map of rail lines in the state.
Posted by CuriousR on November 6, 2012 at 2:23 PM · Report this
vrolijk60 18
You want coal dust in the Seattle and your neighbor hoods? Are you guys nuts...Property values will go down and what about all the noise of those trains? And the coal dust that you will be exposed to.
Besides this coal is brought to China for speculation from Goldman Sachs and our wonderful Warren Buffet.China does not want our Coal. They are way ahead of us in alternative energy and their own coal is cleaner. . They are going to keep it for speculation, causing this whole upheaval. Then besides the coal Trains it will go through Puget Sound on ships making our killer whales disappear and die. As basically it will be worse than the Panama Canal. Oh forget about a accident from either a coal train or one of those tankers.
If China will sell it back to us I hope we will have still our friendly relations in existence. While the coal trains and tankers will bring it back to us. We again will be exposed to pollution. While we are waiting for the coal to return we will not have done a darn thing about alternative energy resources

Lopez No Coal :
Video from Moral politics with Darshan Rauniyar who ran for congress in the 1st congressional district the only one opposing the Cherry Point project.
please watch this video:
Posted by vrolijk60 on November 10, 2012 at 8:21 PM · Report this

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