BNSF should pay for Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector | Guest View

By Jess Grant | Oct 03, 2018

The City of Edmonds has done a tremendous job spearheading the development of a viable plan for the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector.

The proposed design checks off all the right boxes, and the City’s inclusion of public input is a fine example of transparent governance.

Good work.

The project will cost about $30 million; 99 percent of that will very likely need to be paid for by the public through a mix of local, state and federal funding.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), the railroad company whose tracks are the reason for the project, has so far committed to spending $100,000 – less than 1 percent of the total costs.

Why does BNSF get off so easy? After all, it’s their freight traffic that necessitates the Waterfront Connector. Why aren’t they paying the lion’s share of this project? I asked Phil Williams, Edmonds Public Works director, how the consortium of partners had arrived at their financial commitments.

“It would be great if BNSF were a major player in funding the construction of the Waterfront Connector, but that seems unlikely, given current federal laws and regulations,” he said.

“Anything affecting the railroad’s right-of-way requires their approval, so negotiations can be pretty one-sided, unless they are able to make a business case for BNSF doing so.”

The railroads’ rights-of-way, doled out by the Federal government in the 19th century, are guaranteed “in perpetuity,” a fancy phrase that means “forever.”

“If BNSF doesn’t want to help, they don’t have to,” Williams said. “The $100,000 already provided was a welcome contribution to the project, but not something we can really require them to do. We are still hopeful that additional funding can be providing going forward, since we feel that improving safety at our rail crossings is something we should be able to agree on.”

Granting the railroads this kind of legal prerogative might have made sense in the 1800s, when “winning the West” was at the top of the Federal government’s agenda. But does it make sense today?

“The mayor often jokes about the meaning of ‘in perpetuity’ at these meetings,” Williams admitted.

Does BNSF have the resources to help? They’re the largest freight railroad network in North America, and a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.

Berkshire Hathaway is the third largest public company in the world, and the largest financial services company (by revenue) in the world.

By their own account, BNSF invests heavily in infrastructure. Last year, they poured $175 million into Washington state capital projects; this year they plan to spend nearly $160 million in-state.

On average, they invest $120 million annually on grade-crossing maintenance and safety programs.

If BNSF can’t be persuaded with appeals to civic responsibility, then we must compel them by other means.

Their tracks run through the center of Edmonds; their trains, therefore, run at our pleasure.

Hazardous-cargo fees, speed restrictions and service disruptions are the bane of any railroad’s existence. The industry knows that healthy municipal relations are key to ongoing profitability.

The funding process is just beginning.

It’s not too late to go back to BNSF and “make the ask.”


Jess Grant is an Edmonds resident.

 

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