Good Friends and Neighbors:  What $54 Million Doesn’t Buy

A massive upgrade of the Cascade [rail] Corridor has left residents stranded and the sheriff asking Washington, DC, to intervene.

A massive upgrade of the Cascade [rail] Corridor has left residents stranded and the sheriff asking Washington, DC, to intervene.

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When the state spends $54 million on a rail project to improve tracks, impacting coastal communities from Everett to Blaine during construction, one would expect that those communities would get advance notice and a construction schedule. One would also expect the company with the contract – BNSF – to coordinate with local emergency responders when construction cuts off neighborhoods with no alternate means of egress.

One would be wrong on both counts.

WSDOT’s website says the track upgrades are so that passenger rail can travel at higher speeds. When I called WSDOT, Gayla Walsh, the Rail Division Communications Manager, would only confirm that local work here replacing wooden ties with concrete is part of the Corridor Reliability Upgrades North project.

What Walsh would not share is the name of WSDOT’s project lead responsible for coordination. “He’s new, and would not have much information,” she told me yesterday in a phone interview. [$54,000,000.00.]

At issue is work conducted in recent weeks on the tracks intersecting Cove Road and Yacht Club Road by BNSF crews, cutting dozens of homes off from access to Chuckanut Drive and the rest of the world. Most of the time, homeowners knew when construction would block egress, because of electronic reader boards at pertinent intersections announcing closures.

With notice, residents could park a second car on the other side of the tracks that could be reached by walking through the construction sites.

What has homeowners in an uproar, and compelled Sheriff Bill Elfo to seek assistance on August 7th from Congressman Rick Larsen’s office, was the method of communication and lack of coordination.

Elfo told Larsen he only learned about proposed construction from the County Department of Public Works, which BNSF did notify of 11 prospective intersection closures as required when they will close a lane of a road with traffic and use flaggers. But no one from BNSF has ever contacted Elfo’s office.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 40 years, and I have never worked with a construction company that simply refused to communicate with me about project scheduling and locations,” Elfo said in a phone interview yesterday. He was speaking as Director of the county’s Division of Emergency Management.

When first responders know in advance that homeowners will be cut off from egress, there is a protocol, and Chief Dave Ralston of the South Whatcom Fire Authority has assiduously followed it in the past weeks. When he is notified of the time and place of construction, he sends a crew to park a fire truck equipped with a gurney and other EMT supplies on the other side of the construction site.

In the event of an emergency, fire fighters – all of whom are also certified EMTs – drive to the construction site in another department vehicle, walk across to the stand-by vehicle, and continue to the scene of the emergency.  If a resident requires transport to a hospital, responders reverse the two-step transport, this time carrying a gurny through the construction.

Taking a unit out of service to the community at large to stand by in the event of an emergency in a sparsely populated neighborhood is a gamble because, obviously, if during the construction phase the fire department has to respond to a major incident anywhere else, it has one less vehicle.  So it is particularly vexing to receive short notice or no notice of construction delays and rescheduling after placing a unit on standby.

“To say there has been communication from the start, well, no... They’ve had a poorly planned project,” Ralston told me on August 13 about the BNSF construction projects at the intersections with Chuckanut. At best he gets a couple of days’ notice, but he wasn’t notified until 1:00 the day we spoke that work at the Yacht Club Road intersection had been postponed. He learned that night, from a text message, work would resume the next morning.

When Ralston is notified of an intersection closure, he contacts the neighborhood’s fire commissioner, who emails all affected households.

Homeowners’ primary means of notification, however, are the reader boards at the construction sites. But in at least one instance on Cove Road, a third day of construction resulted in a three-hour closure with no notice to residents or first responders, according to a homeowner there with whom I spoke, and confirmed by Ralston.

I spoke with Gus Melonas,  regional director for public affairs for BNSF, for the Idaho, Oregon, Washington and BC region, about the communication snafus.[1]

Melonas confirmed BNSF recently hired a new company to coordinate messaging, but declined to name them. When I said I had a copy of a recent fax to the sheriff’s office from Northwest Safety Signs, Inc. about a future closure, Melonas confirmed that is the company with the contract, adding, “We think we have enhanced the communication situation.”

Melonas refused to link the newly enhanced communication to Sheriff Elfo's letter to Rick Larsen, however, stating "I won't respond to that."

Instead, Melonas regaled me with the many methods of communication their subcontractors utilize:

  • Putting out public advisories (No, the only announced closure, about Boulevard Park and reported by the Bellingham Herald, resulted from Ralph Schwartz's contacting Melonas to confirm or dispel a rumor. There have been no public advisories of residential street closures.)
  • Coordinating with emergency responders (They send faxes 12-48 hours in advance of a closure, but the sheriff has yet to speak with anyone with BNSF who will tell him the scope of the project, and give him a timeline with future road closures.)
  • Communicating daily with the local fire chief (by phone, to inform him 12-48 hours in advance of a closure, and usually after-the-fact when the closure is cancelled due to construction delays, according to Chief Ralston)
  • Having people on the ground, knocking on doors to inform homeowners of closures (This has NEVER happened according to Michael Newlight, president of the Chuckanut Bay Community Association, and two other residents with whom I spoke.)
  • Placing reader boards at the construction site with closure announcements and a contact phone number (The phone is never answered nor calls returned, even for Sheriff Elfo, and the boards generally don’t announce in advance when a closure is cancelled.)

The real issue, Melonas emphasized, is that there are always people who want to complain and make more out of a situation than it really is.

So I quoted to him from an August 13 email one resident sent in desperation to his neighbors:

“We are a family with a disabled member trying to move off of this road this week, with scheduled moving trucks etc…. If anyone has any answers PLEASE let us know.” (Emphasis in original.)

The writer’s move was rescheduled numerous times due to the Yacht Club Road closures, including two days when closures were cancelled without advance notice. They still haven’t moved, according to a neighbor.

Melonas quickly changed his message from whiny babies (my words) to safety. “Stress this when you write about it: this program is for [rail] passenger reliability and it has to be completed for safety.”

[Feel better now? The $54,000,000.00 of what is presumably federal stimulus dollars is for Amtrak and passenger safety. Not the six crude trains per week going to BP and the three that will be going to Phillips 66 by early next year. Not the nine coal trains per day BNSF hopes will be going to Cherry Point. Not the coal trains going to Westshore Terminals in BC now, using every ounce of available capacity for Powder River Basin coal. So stop whining, folks. This is about safety.]

When I told Melonas the sheriff was underwhelmed with the safety aspects, given that he had yet to have contact with a single employee of WSDOT or BNSF to discuss the construction schedule and details of planned intersection closures, Melonas expressed incredulity. In one breath he insisted Elfo knows perfectly well how to contact him, but not long after asked me, “Who is this ‘Esso’ person again?” When I said, “He’s the Whatcom County coordinator of all emergency response,” Melonas insisted I give him the sheriff’s phone number  and hung up to promptly contact him. Two minutes later Melonas called me back asking for an email address because he couldn’t reach Elfo by phone. Instead, I made an email introduction with the subject line, “Bill, meet Gus; Gus, meet Bill.”

[$54,000,000.00.]

____________________

[1]  WSDOT’s Walsh would not give me the name of the BNSF project manager. But to be extra helpful, she gave me Melonas’ personal cell number. The number is out of service. Melonas told me his office number really is the best way to get in touch with him. Walsh had also given me the name of BNSF’s Director of Government Relations, in case I couldn’t reach the PR Guy, but that person is no longer in that position, and his replacement did not return my call. $54,000,000.00, people.

(Updated at 10:26 a.m. to correct information about public advisories.)

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About Terry Wechsler

Citizen Journalist • Member since May 19, 2013

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Aug 15, 2014

I am sure this $54,000,000 will greatly facilitate SpamTrak’s fine bus service up and down the I-5 corridor.

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Barbara Perry

Aug 16, 2014

So how do we citizens get laws passed requiring that companies closing roads are required to post the closures to surrounding neighborhoods, fire departments, and sherif’s a week before road closures are necessary ?  Or a month? Or two years? Also, how about a law that let’s all of the former get notice of what type of trains come through an area and when?  I hate more laws but for these cement oil/coal money minds we need some.

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Walter Haugen

Aug 17, 2014

So now Bill Elfo is shocked that he wasn’t kept in the loop on an important issue. So how does it feel Bill, to be treated with the same disdain you show for ordinary citizens?

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Thelma Follett

Aug 17, 2014

Would this then be the same Gus Melonas who reassured us that for BNSF, “safety is our number one priority” when a BNSF train carrying nearly 100 cars of Bakken crude, approximately 28,000 gallons each, lost a few off the track beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle on July 24 (“Oil train derails in Interbay in Seattle, no spills,” http://blogs.seattletimes.com/today/2014/07/73125/? The cars went off the track despite the fact that they were traveling on one of BNSF’s newly upgraded rails.
Thelma Follett

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Terry Wechsler

Aug 21, 2014

There’s work going on north of the border as well, also ostensibly for Amtrak. This is from Kevin Washbrook of BC:  “BNSF also says the 6 km siding under design right now just north of the border is for Amtrak as well. I called Wash DOT on this and was told they have nothing going on up here, no plans for improvement of service to Vancouver etc. BNSF is also doing a lot of work on the Mud Bay trestle right now—replacing wooden piers with concrete.”

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Terry Wechsler

Aug 21, 2014

Jack Delay of Communitywise Bellingham says this about the source of funds for these and other BNSF projects in the region:

“Virtually all of the major upgrades that enable unit trains for coal and oil in the state of Washington have come from taxpayers as part of $1.3+ Billion dollars in “high speed passenger rail” grants the state has managed over the last several years.

“This particular project is part of the most recent $700 million from the Obama TARP windfall. The coal trains are the highest impact most maintenance intensive loads in the business and all the rip rap and road bed work of the last couple of years was needed because BNSF has deferred maintenance on their system waiting for government handouts.

“You will note that they only spent “millions” on the neglected Sumas subdivision (no Amtrak $s) because it only has to handle empties. That route also has speed limits of 15mph as it winds its way through tight curves across 15 at-grade crossings in Sedro Woolly.”

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Terry Wechsler

Sep 02, 2014

Poor poor coal companies can’t get access to the rails fast enough. From a Cloud Peak Energy notice to investors:

Colin Marshall, Cloud Peak Energy’s President and Chief Executive Officer said, “As we previously stated, our earlier guidance ranges were dependent upon an improvement in rail performance through the end of the year. While we believe the rail performance issues are being addressed, the reality is that the improvements have not taken place at a sufficiently robust pace to allow us to maintain our previous guidance.

http://investor.cloudpeakenergy.com/press-release/announcements/cloud-peak-energy-updates-2014-shipment-and-adjusted-ebitda-guidance-and

Cloud Peak is the major mining company in the Powder River Basin shipping coal through Westshore Terminals.

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