If local planners have their way, motorists on Oregon Way in Longview will one day to look down at the Industrial Way intersection and see freight trains passing underneath.
This overpass is the lynchpin of an emerging, $200 million plan to upgrade the region's aging rail network to accommodate industrial growth.
Officials say the overpass and rail plan are vital to prevent massive traffic tie-ups at rail crossings, especially now that Millennium Bulk Terminals has plans for a 44 million ton coal export terminal west of Longview. The terminal would require 16 train trips, each a mile long, to pass through the Longview industrial corridor daily.
"It's going to be the biggest thing the county has ever done in transportation," said Rosemary Siipola, transportation manager for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments.
She said the area's need for improved rail service goes far beyond the need to accommodate Millennium and is vital to the region's overall economic growth.
The plan would require all coal and other mile-long "unit" trains to be routed through the Port of Longview's rail corridor, which avoids other rail crossings at Third Avenue and California Way. The corridor currently handles unit trains bound for the EGT grain terminal. A new segment of tracks would link the port line to the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe rails along Industrial Way — the one along the Weyerhaeuser Co. mill site. The vehicular overpass would be necessary near the intersection of Oregon Way to prevent the long trains from blocking traffic to and from the Lewis and Clark Bridge. Some private property in the area may have to be purchased through the condemnation process, Siipola said.
Even coal terminal opponents acknowledge that the massive rail expansion proposal could head off congestion that the terminal otherwise could cause in Longview. However, no funding plan is in place, and critics worry that taxpayers may foot an unfair share of the cost for the plan and overpass, which is often called a "grade separation."
"I don't think this community can tolerate the coal trains without the grade separation, so I think it bears the question: What guarantee do we have, should the Millennium project go forward, (for) money being available for the grade separation?" said coal terminal critic Gary Lindstrom, a former Port of Longview official who now is a private maritime industry consultant.
The coal trains could create congestion in other communities along the main rail line. In Woodland, county planners may need to build another overpass at Scott Avenue so Millennium-bound trains don't block entrance to the Port of Woodland, Siipola said. Thirty miles south, the Camas City Council passed a resolution last week calling for a study of coal trains' effect on emergency vehicle transport.
Cowlitz County planners first began working on a rail expansion plan four years ago, but the proposal has gained fresh attention in light of Millennium's announcement last month of plans to build a $600 million coal terminal on the 416-acre former Reynolds Metals Co. site.
In the first stage, with a completion date set for the end of 2015, the company plans to export 25 million tons of coal brought there by five trains daily. Millennium plans to expand exports to 44 million tons within the following two to three years.
Millennium plans to employ 135 workers at full development and create 2,600 jobs during construction.
Company officials say they plan to submit an environmental review of the project in 18 to 24 months, which will include a more detailed plan to prevent rail congestion.
"As business grows (in Cowlitz County), all the infrasturcture is going to need to grow to accommodate that," Millennium CEO Ken Miller said Friday.
Siipola said she expects the costs of the rail plan would be shared by industries on the waterfront and along the rail corridor, even though she has no firm commitments. The Council of Government officials has met with an advisory group that includes the Port of Longview, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Weyerhaeuser Co., Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging Co., Millennium and Swanson Bark & Wood Products (which is exploring rail expansion along the north side of Tennant Way), she said.
On the way to Millennium, the unit trains would pass in front of the Weyerhaeuser gates, where hundreds of employees, contractors and log trucks enter the site daily. Siipola said the county is considering a plan to raise the intersection of Washington Way and Industrial Way so trains can pass underneath without blocking vehicles.
"We have a pretty robust mill, so we have a constant flow of traffic to and from the site. We want to ensure that once Millennium is up and running, that the rail traffic is minimized at our mill," Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez said.
Chavez declined to say whether Weyerhaeuser would pony up any money for the plan, but said the company hopes federal and state grants will cover it.
Other improvements include easing the curves on the Burlington Northern tracks through town to boost maximum speed from 10 mph to 20 mph, building a new rail crossing over the Cowlitz River with two or more tracks (likely the largest single expense) and adding a third rail line through the port's industrial corridor. Siipola said she does not have specific cost breakdowns.
Nothing is set in stone, and agencies are at least two years away from filing permits, Siipola cautioned. The Council of Governments has completed only 2 percent to 3 percent of the engineering, and the full rail plan will be completed in 2014, she said. The agency hopes to complete the entire expansion within four to five years, a year or two before Millennium hopes to start operating the terminal.
The Port of Longview currently uses its rail corridor built in the 1990s to transport bulk imports and exports, typically on short trains, said Norm Krehbiel, the port's deputy executive director. Also, the EGT grain terminal will unload 650, mile-long trains per year once it is fully operational, EGT spokesman Matthew Beck said. The grain terminal went online in February.
The port supports the overall goal of rail expansion, particularly because it hopes to build an industrial park at its Barlow Point property west of Millennium, Krehbiel said. Improved rail service would make the property more marketable to industrial clients, he said.
He added that port officials are "open to the concept" of using the port's rail line to send trains to Millennium, but they're reserving judgment until they see the final plan.
"We would need to see how the overall system is going to function. And we're going to be protective of our existing capacity," Krehbiel said.
The Council of Governments plan is just one of two major railroad upgrades envisioned for Cowlitz County. Last year, state officials announced a $200 million plan to add 10 miles of new rail lines from Kelso to Woodland to help speed up Amtrak passenger trains and relieve industrial freight congestion in the area.
Investments in rail are key the area's economic future and are long overdue, Siipola said.
The area's rail system was designed in the 1920s primarily to haul lumber from the Long-Bell Lumber Co. mill and other industries to the main line. In the 1940s, the line was extended to the Reynolds alminum plant.
Back then, manufacturers needed rail to haul cargo out. Today, planners are redesigning the rail system to work in reverse and bring goods in. The plan reflects the evolution of the area's economy, Siipola said.
"You're taking a waterfront that was dedicated to manufacturing, and you're redeveloping it for bulk import/export," she said.
Rail plan (See graphic)
- 2014 — Complete full environmental review
- 2016-2017 — Complete full expansion (dates of phases to be determined)
- New or renovated rail bridge over Cowlitz River with additional (second) line
- New overpass at Industrial Way/ Oregon Way intersection
- New overpass at Industrial Way/ Washington Way intersection at Weyerhaeuser Co. front gates
- Third rail line added to Port of Longview industrial corridor
- Track curves widened to increase max speed for short trains through Burlington Northerm Santa Fe line through Longview
Millennium coal terminal (See graphic on what 44 million tons of coal looks like)
- 2014 – Complete environmental review, which includes transportation analysis
- 2015 — Complete first phase to export 25 million tons of coal requiring 10 train trips through town
- 2018-2019 — Complete second phase and final phase to export 44 million tons requiring a total of 16 train trips