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Sandpoint Residents Sound Off on Proposed New Rail Bridges

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

“Population throughout the United States and northern Idaho is driving demand for more building materials, energy, consumer goods and agricultural products, which all move by rail."

This message comes from a video produced for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway — BNSF — making a case for an expansion of its rail line in and around Sandpoint.

“BNSF meets up with Montana Rail Link at Sandpoint, Idaho. There, rail traffic from both railroads merge together to travel over Lake Pend Oreille on a single-track bridge.”

Burlington Northern wants to build three more bridges, including a second span over Pend Oreille.

“As you can imagine, much like a highway, delays can happen when you merge multiple lanes down to one lane and, if you have a two- or three-lane highway that merges to one lane shared by both directions of traffic, you will see backups on either side that can extend for many miles.”

So, the railroad argues, Sandpoint is a train bottleneck that needs to be fixed.

“It slows trains as they come to Sandpoint, but also has an impact all the way into Washington and Montana. By building a second main-line bridge over the lake, trains will move across the lake in both directions at the same time, reducing the time trains must wait for other trains to cross the bridge.”

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Several people who attended the Sandpoint hearing wore t-shirts that support the new rail bridges.

That brings us to a public hearing Wednesday evening at Sandpoint Middle School. It was sponsored by the Idaho Department of Lands, which is required to issue a so-called ‘encroachment’ permit before BNSF could use fill materials at various places around the new bridges.  

The longest of the three bridges would run parallel to the current tracks that traverse the lake, about two miles. Smaller bridges would also carry cars over Sand Creek and Bridge Street.

The state says more than 1,100 people have filed written testimony during the last couple of months. Many of the pro-bridge comments came from people all over the country who sent in identically-worded form letters. Some came from local Sandpoint residents. Some support the project. Others, such as Shannon Williamson from the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, say they’re withholding judgment and urged the federal and state governments to do a thorough study of the railroad’s proposal.

“We’re concerned about potential increases in transport of hazardous materials throughout the watershed," Williamson said. "There were about four train derailments in northern Idaho and western Montana last year. Thankfully, none of them were containing hazardous materials, but the frequency at which they occurred really opened our eyes to the potential for this to happen either adjacent to or over our waterways, so we’re very concerned about that.”

At Wednesday night’s hearing, several people, such as Rebecca Holland, conveyed that same message. She asked the federal agencies that also must issue permits for this project to require that a full environmental impact statement be done to analyze the project, as opposed to what’s known as an environmental analysis, which critics argue is less stringent.

“We do not know the projected number of increased trains that this project could bring across our lake or into our community," Holland said. "It is only prudent to operate with an understanding of risk versus reward in a situation that involves a good size population of people working here in a recreational-based economy here in Bonner County.”

Supporters of the project argue a stricter environmental document isn’t necessary.

Pierre Bordenave, from Jacobs Engineering in Sandpoint, which has drawn up the plans for the new bridges, says BNSF has worked hard to shrink the project’s environmental footprint.

“Originally this was about five acres in the desire how to figure out how to make this work. Working closely with the design engineers and BNSF, we were able to work that down to about three acres. Then as we got a little more innovative and a little more creative, we were able to reduce this down to 1.54 acres," Bordenave said. "Construction plans and timing were developed to minimize traffic impacts and ensure continuous access. BNSF will work with the city of Sandpoint on making sure that happens.”

Bonner County Commissioners Glen Bailey and Dan McDonald argued that the economic benefits of the project should be seriously considered. McDonald says the region’s economic vitality depends upon modernizing antiquated rail infrastructure.

“The current system we have is falling behind," he said.  "The bottleneck in Sandpoint, where three rail lines come together into a single track, has been a consistent problem for years now. Not only does it create line ups of freight and passenger rail traffic, but it also causes delays on community roads and rail crossings. And, as a commissioner, when we do have those trains sitting on the tracks and they’re blocking roadways, our phones start ringing.”

“Stopped trains can delay people, but so can moving trains," countered Matt Nykiel from the Idaho Conservation League. “And if the bridge adds capacity to our rail infrastructure and allows more trains to be moving through our community, that’s going to delay people too. I think we need to analyze that and actually know, are there going to be benefits to us or not?”

Wednesday was the final day that the Idaho Department of Lands was to accept public comments. Its director is expected to announce within a month whether the agency will issue an encroachment permit. Two federal agencies, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, will lead their own public process this summer for the permits they’ve been asked to provide.

One disclaimer: BNSF is an underwriter of Spokane Public Radio.