County seeks vote in Tongue River proposal

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A BNSF Railway train proceeds across the railroad bridge between Sandpoint and Sagle on Wednesday. (Photo by KEITH KINNAIRD)

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an erroneous figure involving the amount of coal the proposed rail line is expected to generate.

SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners are insisting on being included in the environmental review of a proposal to develop a new railroad to ship Montana coal to export terminals in the coastal Northwest.

Commissioner Glen Bailey said the Tongue River Railroad proposal will lead to the shipment of more than 20 million tons of coal per year, which is expected to block at-grade railroad crossings throughout Bonner County.

Combined with existing coal train traffic, a total of 100 million tons of coal is expected to pass through to ports on the coast.

Bailey said the tied-up crossings will slow local commerce and delay emergency vehicles from responding to local emergencies.

As a result, the county is asking the federal Surface Transportation Board to include local communities in its review of the Tongue River proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“It is both reasonable and prudent for cities, towns, other representative bodies or officials to ask the Surface Transportation Board to use the Tongue River Railroad proceeding to ensure that taxpayers are not footing the bill for industry profits by requiring railroads to pay an increased share for the rail mitigation costs,” Bailey said on Tuesday.

Those mitigation measures could include railroad underpasses and overpasses, in addition to improved at-grade crossing safety measures.

Bailey said railroads only have to pay about 5 percent of those costs on existing rail lines, but when a new line is proposed local communities can seek increased costs for rail traffic mitigation.

“We don’t want to slow commerce and we don’t want to stop free trade. We like free trade, but it will be bringing a lot of rail traffic through Sandpoint,” he said.

The Tongue River Railroad Co. filed an application in 2012 to construct an 83-mile rail line between Miles City and Ashland, Mont., and the Otter Creek Mine.

The Surface Transportation Board’s Office of Environmental Analysis anticipates issuing a draft environmental impact statement in this spring.

The county commission is also calling or public hearings to be held in Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, East Hope and other communities which could be affected by the Tongue River proposal.

“The big point here is that local communities cannot afford to fund the increase in infrastructure costs that are going to be associated with this,” said Commissioner Mike Nielsen.

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