Officials Still Deciding How to Accommodate Coal Trains

By Erik Olson, June 3, 2013, Longview Daily News

Local government officials say they are slowly chugging ahead with plans for $200 million in rail improvements to West Longview, a project officials say is critical to bringing industrial growth to the area, including a proposed coal terminal.

“This project represents the future of our economy for the next few decades. It will open all of our industrial property to the west. It’s a very important piece of infrastructure for us,” Cowlitz Economic Development Council President Ted Sprague said Monday.

Existing rail lines cross several busy roadways, including Oregon Way and Industrial Way, as well as entrances to the Weyerhaeuser Co. mill site. Traffic congestion caused by mile-long coal trains is one of the biggest concerns critics of the proposed coal terminal raise in opposition to the export project.

A Nebraska-based consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, has been conducting interviews, taking aerial photos and gathering other data about the corridor, which stretches from Interstate 5 along State Route 432 (Tennant Way) and along Industrial Way nearly to Barlow Point.

In about a month, planning officials expect to roll out a schedule of public meetings to discuss improvements to the rail corridor, Melissa Taylor, planning manager for the Cowlitz Wahkiakum Council of Governments, said Monday.

Planners have not identified specific projects or who will pay for them. A handful of dramatic proposals have emerged nevertheless. One is a new railroad bridge crossing over the Cowlitz River, easily the most expensive project. Other options include overpasses at major intersections, such Oregon Way and Industrial Way or farther west in front of the Weyerhaeuser main gate.

A third rail line could be built, and mile-long unit trains could be sent through the Port of Longview rail corridor and miss major city thoroughfares.

Local government officials began a rail expansion study in 2008 after obtaining $4 million in state and federal grants. The need for improved rail access gained a higher profile in early 2012 when Millennium Bulk Terminals filed permits to build a new $643 million coal terminal at the former Reynolds Metals Co. site west of Longview. The terminal would eventually add 16 daily train trips to corridor traffic.

“What are all the different things you can do to improve the congestion and mobility of that corridor? We’ve been looking at this since the ’80s,” Taylor said.

In addition to servicing the proposed coal terminal, improve rail lines could make the Port of Longview’s 275-acre Barlow Point property more attractive to prospective industrial clients. The city of Longview’s Mint Farm Industrial Park could benefit from improved rail access, too.

Planners say they hope to identify specific costs by early 2014 and then conduct an environmental review. Construction will be done in phases as funding becomes available, Taylor said. The cost of improvements will likely be shared among local governments and waterfront industries, planners said.

Millennium officials say they hope to start of the first phase of their coal terminal in 2015 or 2016.

Longview City Manager Bob Gregory, a member of the rail project’s planning committee, said members are also looking at ways to minimize traffic congestion for existing businesses along the busy corridor. He added that he’s concerned that trains could delay fire engines and ambulances for too long without improvements.

“We’ve got to have good solutions on how we’re going to do this,” he said.

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