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.
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.”
 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.)