Trains in Blaine mainly a pain

Published on Thu, Oct 23, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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Trains in Blaine mainly a pain

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

In an effort to address the increasing train delays and the public safety problem it poses, the city of Blaine held a public meeting Monday night with numerous officials, including representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad.

�The meeting tonight was requested by city council to explore what alternatives there may be to make a bad situation in our community better,� said city manager Gary Tomsic.

Since the beginning of September, the Blaine community has experienced increased train delays at the junction of Peace Portal Drive and Bell Road � the route that connects east Blaine and west Blaine � due primarily to the rail Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) site that was installed in September to increase security efforts at the border. The site is located just six tenths of a mile south of the Bell Road junction, which currently sees 11,000 passing vehicles daily.

Blaine area port director Peg Fearon explained that the government is utilizing new technology to secure the country, including the rail VACIS, due to the events of September 11, 2001.

The terror threat via the rail is real, Fearon said, and �implements of terror� can be found there. �It�s impossible to inspect every train, so the rail VACIS enables us to look at the entire train through x-ray images,� she said, adding the Blaine VACIS site is the second along the northern border, and five more sites are scheduled to be completed by January.

According to Jay Brandt, assistant port director for trade and operations, the trains should clear the tracks in less than 20 minutes. The train is traveling between five and seven miles per hour while being x-rayed via the VACIS procedure, he said, and most trains average 6,000 feet.

�One of the bottlenecks is Blaine,� he said.

Fearon said the initial delays in September resulted from the learning curve experienced by inspectors training in the rail VACIS.

�We hope it remains minimal (the delays) and that citizens recognize the need for national security,� Fearon said, adding the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) is looking at ways to enhance VACIS.

BNSF railroad officials notify federal officials when trains are arriving and inspectors in a nearby control booth then view images of the train while being x-rayed. Should the inspectors wish to examine any railroad cars, railroad officials stop the train.

�If they (inspectors) see someone in the cars, or something they want to look at, trains can be stopped immediately,� Fearon said.

Connecting east, west
Blaine The train delay issue first surfaced during a city council meeting in September when councilman Bruce Wolf voiced concerns about traffic delays and the disruption in connecting east Blaine and west Blaine.

�I brought up the issue because of the amount of train delays - it�s unbelievable volume,� he said. �We have east Blaine and west Blaine and literally you can�t connect them except for Bell Road. It�s a big problem when you look at the town�s makeup. It�s something that�s not acceptable in my opinion.�

Wolf said that people are increasingly using the Loomis Trail route to avoid the train delays. �No one can predict when the trains are coming,� he said.

In addition, the number of trains are also increasing, according to BNSF officials. On an average day, the railroad sees three northbound and three southbound trains; however, the number of trains has increased to 10 over the last week, adding to the number of train delays. Delays usually last 15 to 20 minutes; however, incidents of 45 minutes to an hour have been recorded over the last two months.

Public safety issue
In addition to the fact the delays are annoying for commuters, the public safety of the community is also put at risk, officials said.

Tomsic read a police report from October 8 indicating that emergency medical services en route to an elderly woman suffering with diabetic problems were stopped by a train delay and were not able to properly respond. The EMS units from the Birch Bay station arrived behind a unit from Bellingham � some 20 miles away. �Obviously there is an issue of public safety here,� fire district 13 division chief Jim Rutherford said. �But I like to keep things in perspective ... our operations aren�t necessarily stopped. There is backup.�

EMS services also have volunteers and daily career staff, Rutherford said. �We are not affected nearly as much as the Blaine police department. If they�re stuck, they don�t have a backup. Their backup is the Whatcom County Sheriff�s Office, and they could be out near Mt. Baker.�

Rutherford did say NWFRS units could take alternative routes when responding to calls, if they were made aware of incoming trains � something both the railroad and border officials agreed could be worked out.

�We can work on communication and take different routes,� he said. �There are alternatives.�

Blaine resident Renata Tomsic (and wife of the city manager) lives near the Bell Road junction and is often affected by the trains, but voiced concerns for others� safety and questioned who would be responsible should a tragedy occur.

�We don�t know when the trains are coming. There�s only one way in and one way out. What if someone tries to beat the train because they don�t know how long they�ll have to wait? If there�s a tragedy, who�s liable for it?� she asked, her question followed by silence from officials.

�Somebody�s liable. There�s got to be some solution,� councilwoman Marsha Hawkins added.

Economic affects
Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Ron Leach said he was concerned with the economic impacts the train delays have on the community.

�I have many concerns as far as the disruption in traffic in this community,� he said. �Businesses are affected by this. The delays are affecting and will continue to affect the economic situation of Blaine. Imagine that you can�t get your customers through for 25 to 30 minutes.�

Bob and Pam Christianson, owners of Pacific Building Supply, see effects from the train delays almost every day as their store is located just past the Bell Road junction. �We deal with it daily,� Pam said. �We go through a lot of coffee. The biggest problem is dealing with the anger (people have).�

One day, she said, her store had to stay open more than half an hour later as a truck carrying supplies was held up on the other side of the tracks.

�Had they put it (VACIS) a mile down the tracks, I don�t think we�d be looking at these tremendous backups,� she said. �Granted it would be expensive, but it would be more of a safety issue as well.�

School issue could be fixed
Outbound and inbound Blaine school district buses have been affected by the delays since the start of the school year in early September. Students arrive late to school in the morning and sometimes arrive home late in the afternoon, and drivers are often late in their shifts, according to transportation director Carl Wagelie.

Although the Blaine school district was not represented at the meeting, railroad officials did state that if they were given 10 to 15 minute timeframes for bus schedules, the trains could be held to accommodate the traveling buses.

Unanswered questions
One of the main questions � which was seemingly left unanswered � was why the city of Blaine was left out of the site study and evaluation process for the rail VACIS site.

�The purpose of this is a security issue. The security factor is paramount,� mayor Dieter Schugt said, recognizing the need for security. �But to my knowledge the city had no input as to where it went, which is unfortunate.�

A site survey was performed, Brandt said, and evaluated several sites with representatives from the railroad, the county and DHS.

�It looked closely at Bell Road and Marine Drive,� Brandt said, but due to more pedestrian traffic at Marine Drive, the Bell Road location was chosen. �BNSF people wanted that site � for what reasons I don�t know.�

Councilman Bruce Wolf asked border and railroad officials why the city was not involved in the VACIS process. �Why were we not involved? Where was the Blaine input in all of this? You�re blocking the only road that connects Blaine,� Wolf said.

His question was never answered; however, county planning officials say federal and railroad offices do not have to notify state or city levels.

When asked what alternatives there could be, railroad and border officials acknowledged two ideas: moving it or building an overpass. Although the ideas were acknowledged, officials did state no solutions could be granted without authorization from DHS and BNSF headquarters.

�The simplest solution seems to be to move it, and we need to explore that as one option at least,� Schugt said.

Resident Brent Brentnall said it appears to him there are two choices as well. �Move it or build an overpass. We have a serious problem and it�s a recent phenomenon,� he said. �I hope working together we can come up with a satisfactory solution. Otherwise I see litigation or a lot of inconvenience.�

Fearon said she presumed it could be moved, but did not know the expense involved or the location, and noted she could not authorize such a process, but would discuss it with officials at DHS headquarters. �The railroad would have to work with us on another location.�

Representatives from Senator Patty Murray�s office said the city of Blaine would need to provide the senator with a written proposal to move the VACIS site or build an overpass, if the city wishes to pursue and receive funding from Murray�s office to battle the problem.

Tomsic, as Blaine city manager, responded to the representative�s call for a proposal as something not within Blaine�s responsibility. �I think it�s the responsibility of the DHS and the railroad,� he said, reiterating the fact that the city of Blaine had no representation during the VACIS site survey and installation.

The unanswered questions frustrated city council members, leaving some to question where the issue was headed once the meeting was over.

�This sounds like it�s going to get lost. I�ve heard some fears and frustrations from the railroad and DHS, but I�ve heard very little sympathy,� councilman Ken Ely said. �What happens to this? I�m listening to this issue go down the drain. My question to you is what will it take to urge you to give us some hope of reasonable alternatives?�

The resulting consensus at the adjournment of the meeting was that representatives would discuss the issue with officials at their organizations� headquarters and collect information for later discussion. A followup meeting was not scheduled.

�We did not receive a satisfactory answer as to why we were not involved in the planning for this project,� Tomsic said later. �Our preliminary inquiries at the county level reveal that know one there recalls reviewing this request from the railroad. I think that they made the best decision for the railroad and did not really think about the implications until it was too late.�

According to mayor Schugt, the issue will be discussed further at the Blaine city council meeting, where the discussion of ordinance action will begin. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at city hall on Monday, October 27.

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