Railroad Wants New Train Bridge in Scenic Sandpoint

Sep 19, 2014

Railroad officials say they want to eliminate a bottleneck for rail traffic in the Inland Northwest. They have plans to build a second railway bridge in Northern Idaho. Scenic Sandpoint, Idaho is situated adjacent to Lake Pend Oreille. Currently there is one railroad bridge crossing the lake and heading into Sandpoint, but BNSF says the time has come to build a second adjacent bridge.

The view of Lake Pend Oreille from Sandpoint's City Beach in July.
Credit Paige Browning / Spokane Public Radio

Gus Melonas: “We're looking at fifty trains a day and they funnel through this area on the bridge, and if there is an issue with this bridge, that means trains back up in both directions.”

BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas says rail traffic has increased to the point a new bridge is necessary. Part of the increase is due to more coal and oil train traffic. But that is of concern to Sandpoint City Councilwoman Shannon Williamson is concerned about the impact those trains could have.

Williamson: “Not just our health and safety from potential explosions but just devastating consequences for water quality if a train were to derail and puncture, we are not prepared to deal with a spill of that magnitude.”
 
In the last few years, there has been an increase in accidents related to oil trains, including one in Quebec last July that killed 47 people and another in Alabama last November. Since March there have been at least 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents. According to the US Pipeline and Hazardous materials administration, the number of gallons spilled in the United States last year, far outpaced the total amount spilled by railroads from 1975 to 2012.

Despite that record, Gus Melonas says BNSF’s safety record is impressive.
 
Melonas:"On our northern corridor tier and that means the great plains through the Rockies that includes Sandpoint, we have not had one fatality due to a hazmat release since 1981.”
 
The plan for the new bridge will have to be approved by a number of agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers.